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Anfractuosity

Pronounced /ænˌfræktjuːˈɒsɪtɪ/Help with pronunciation

This refers to a channel, crevice or passage full of windings and turnings, not quite a maze, though some mazes certainly take on an anfractuous appearance, one that is sinuous or winding.

One sense is of a broken or jumbled landscape:

Paint me a cavernous waste shore
Cast in the unstilled Cyclades,
Paint me the bold anfractuous rocks
Faced by the snarled and yelping seas.

Sweeney Erect, by T S Eliot, 1919.

Anfractuosity and anfractuous are also used in the sense of the sulci, the grooves between the convolutions of the surface of the brain.

This is yet a third, figurative, sense:

If any message from the core of reality ever were to reach us, we should expect to find in it just that unexpectedness, that willful dramatic anfractuosity which we find in the Christian faith.

The Problem of Pain, by C S Lewis, 1940.

The term is used in modern times to refer to a kind of opaque and circuitous legal prose, full of twists and turns, seemingly designed more to confuse than to clarify; this is sometimes called syntactic anfractuosity, a suitably ponderous term with which to describe its subject.

The word comes from Latin anfractus, a bending around, from the verb frangere, to break. So it is a close cousin of the much more recent fractal, as well as fracture, fragile, refraction, and, rather less obviously, infringe and osprey (this last word comes from ossifraga, bone breaker, originally applied to the lammergeier).

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Copyright © Michael Quinion, 1996–. All rights reserved.

Page created 13 Apr. 2002
Last updated 7 Nov. 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.

World Wide Words is copyright © Michael Quinion, 1996–. All rights reserved.
This page URL: http://www.worldwidewords.org/weirdwords/ww-anf1.htm
Last modified: 7 November 2009.