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Succedaneum

Pronounced /sʌksɪˈdeɪnɪəm/Help with IPA

If you are in need of an obscure Latinate 11-letter word, this may suit you to a T. Even better still, it may be employed as a high-flown alternative for the everyday substitute. Imagine how much a sports commentary would be improved by hearing of the arrival on the pitch of a succedaneum. However, we would first have to train commentators in its pronunciation, which is rather like “suck-see-DANE-e-um”.

It derives from the neuter singular of the Latin succedaneus, an adjective taken from the verb succedere, to succeed. The verb is in fact the source of our succeed, which originally adopted one sense of its Latin precursor — to come after, replace or follow — but which evolved in parallel the sense of reaching some outcome. When its noun success first came into the language, it meant any result, bad or good. Ill success was misfortune or failure and good success was a favourable conclusion. By the late sixteenth century, success by itself came to mean a good success, though ill success stayed in the language almost to modern times.

Both succedaneum and its adjective succedaneous started to be used in writing around the 1630s. We have lost the adjective along the way, but the noun just survives, clinging to the language by its finger tips, though in 2011 Collins tore it from the pages of its dictionary as part of a house-clearing exercise.

This is a famous description from literature of a sailor coming up from below decks:

The head was followed by a perfect desert of chin, and by a shirt-collar and neckerchief, and by a dreadnought pilot-coat, and by a pair of dreadnought pilot-trousers, whereof the waistband was so very broad and high, that it became a succedaneum for a waistcoat: being ornamented near the wearer’s breastbone with some massive wooden buttons, like backgammon men.

Dombey and Son, by Charles Dickens, 1848. The character being described is Captain Jack Bunsby.

A more recent appearance was in the introduction to a book with the expansive title of The New York Times Everyday Reader’s Dictionary of Misunderstood, Misused, and Mispronounced Words, the work of the famous American lexicographer Laurence Urdang: “This is not a succedaneum for satisfying the nympholepsy of nullifidians”, which being roughly translated may be rendered as “This is not a substitute for satisfying the frenzied enthusiasm of the sceptic.”

Physicians know of the modern Latin formulation caput succedaneum, a collection of fluid in the scalp of a newborn caused by the pressure of the birth canal on the head during delivery. The OED glosses it as “substitute head”, presumably from the idea that the swelling resembles a baby’s head. For doctors, a succedaneum is also an old term for an inferior replacement drug.

Page created 1 Dec. 2012

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Last modified: 1 December 2012.