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Adumbrate

Pronounced /ˈædʌmbreɪt/Help with pronunciation

There are shadowy associations to this word. It comes from a Latin verb that itself derives from umbra, a shadow, which has also given us umbrella, sombre (US somber), and umbrage.

All the English senses have figurative associations with dimness or shade. The principal one today is “report or represent in outline”, to sketch dimly in words, one might say, which is very close to the sense of the Latin. If it’s not a word in your working vocabulary, that’s hardly a surprise, since it has always tended to turn up in academic or formal prose:

Feeble is human speech to deal with such high matters, serving, at the best, but dimly to adumbrate ineffable truths.

The Contemporary Review, January 1883.

It can also mean to indicate something faintly or merely hint at it, to foreshadow or prefigure a future event, or to overshadow or obscure something. Here’s an example of the hinting sense:

Perhaps Lessing’s point, merely adumbrated, is that the long Edwardian afternoon would have entailed a continuation of the great Edwardian philanthropy, otherwise brutally curtailed.

The Spectator, 24 May 2008.

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Copyright © Michael Quinion, 1996–. All rights reserved.
Page created 6 Jun. 2009

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The English language is forever changing. New words appear; old ones fall out of use or alter their meanings. World Wide Words tries to record at least a part of this shifting wordscape by featuring new words, word histories, words in the news, and the curiosities of native English speech.

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This page URL: http://www.worldwidewords.org/weirdwords/ww-adu1.htm
Last modified: 6 June 2009.