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Pronounced /ɪnˈfændəs/Help with pronunciation

The headline in the New York Times blog The Lede on 20 March summed up the lexical situation: “Canada Bars ‘Infandous’ British Politician, Journalists Reach for Dictionaries”. They would have had to heave down a really big one from the shelf. So far as I can discover the only one that contains the word is the mammoth Oxford English Dictionary, which reports that it’s long obsolete.

The politician who has been stopped from entering Canada is George Galloway, a firebrand left-wing British MP for a minority party, Respect. Though Mr Galloway is a figure about whom controversies swirl, not least because he supports the Palestinian cause and Hamas in particular (banned as a terrorist organisation in Canada), we have to wonder if it’s appropriate to brand him with an epithet that the OED records being last used in 1708.

Alykhan Velshi, a spokesman for Canada’s immigration minister, said that Mr Galloway was an “infandous street-corner Cromwell”. Infandous means “unspeakable” or “too odious to be expressed or mentioned” and comes from Latin infandus, abominable. If he mined the waste tips of English for a year, it would be hard to uncover a stronger word with which to express disgust.

Infandous has never been popular. The first known user is another figure of controversy, James Howell. His accomplishments included acting as a Royalist spy in the 1630s; appropriately, in view of Mr Velshi’s comment, Cromwell imprisoned him during the English Civil War. Howell wrote a letter to a friend from York in 1628: “This infandous custom of Swearing, I observe, reigns in England lately more than any where else.” The word appeared in 1693 in a work by Cotton Mather about the Salem Witch trials but after that it went into permanent decline. It was briefly resurrected in Dreams in The Witch-House, a story by H P Lovecraft published in Weird Tales in 1933: “He found himself swaying to infandous rhythms said to pertain to the blackest ceremonies of the Sabbat.” Nobody now is sure even how to say it (if it tempts you, the OED suggests the stress should be on the second syllable).

Mr Velshi might instead have unearthed another cast-off term with similar sense that also ultimately derives from Latin fari, to speak — nefandous, unmentionable, abominable, or atrocious, which was likewise first used by Howell. Several other English words can also be traced to the same verb, if indirectly. He might have gone for infamous (could this have been what he was groping for?) since for the Romans, as for us, fame meant that you were being spoken about. To be fated signified that the sentence of the gods had been said over you; if you were affable in its original sense you were easy to speak to, while something ineffable is too great or extreme to be expressed or described in words. An infant is a child too young to be able to speak, and the military force is called the infantry because it contains a broader sense of the same word and means etymologically that it’s manned by youths.

Mr Velshi may be set for fame himself. His comment is a candidate to appear in future editions of books of modern quotations. His extraordinarily rare choice of word may even be enshrined in the next edition of the Oxford English Dictionary.

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Page created 04 Apr 2009