This week’s word is ineffable, a word which I use in conversation, usually when talking about somebody being ineffably cool, but didn’t fully understand until I delved into it today.
So let’s start with a definition – ineffable is an adjective to describe “that which is too great or extreme to be expressed in words”. It is also “that which must not be uttered”. The second meaning was the one that flummoxed me. I had no idea that ineffability had an association with taboos. Oh and in case you’re not sure – here’s the pronunciation audio.
Ineffable is one the Romans gave us and has been in English since the late 1300s when it arrived with the meaning of something being too great for words. It traveled via Old French (ineffable) and ultimately from Latin ineffabilis (unutterable) which was compounded from in (not, opposite as used in inimitable, for example) and effabilis (speakable). Effabilis itself was formed from effari (to utter) whose roots are in fari (to speak).
The taboo sense of ineffable arrived in the late 1500s, but it was the 1800s which had the most fun with the word and its meaning. In the 1820s, if you referred to ineffables you were talking about trousers. Yes, really.
Certain parts of British society at that time period (before Queen Victoria ascended the throne in 1837, but not exactly the most progressive time all the same) would have been prudish so calling trousers unspeakable is far from remarkable. Perhaps the most popular version of such over the top modesty was the idea of table and piano legs being covered so scandalous legs wouldn’t been seen or mentioned, but sadly that’s not really true. If you’d like more info on that story I’ll direct you to Atlas Obscura’s excellent article.
Until next time beware of ineffable trousers,