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Ultracrepidarian

Thursday 10 April 2003 was the 225th anniversary of the birth of the essayist William Hazlitt (a date commemorated by the unveiling of his restored memorial in St Anne’s churchyard, Soho). This week’s Weird Word is one he is first recorded as using.

He did so in a famous letter of 1819 to William Gifford, the editor of the Quarterly Review, a letter which has been described as “one of the finest works of invective in the language”. In one of his more moderate castigations, Hazlitt wrote: “You have been well called an Ultra-Crepidarian critic”. What Hazlitt thought of Gifford’s journal may be deduced from this passage in The Spirit of the Age (1825):

His Journal, then, is a depository for every species of political sophistry and personal calumny. There is no abuse or corruption that does not there find a Jesuitical palliation or a bare-faced vindication. There we meet the slime of hypocrisy, the varnish of courts, the cant of pedantry, the cobwebs of the law, the iron hand of power. Its object is as mischievous as the means by which it is pursued are odious.

You can see why Hazlitt described himself as “a good hater”.

Ultracrepidarian, somebody who gives opinions on matters beyond his knowledge, comes from a classical allusion. The Latin writer Pliny recorded that Apelles, the famous Greek painter who was a contemporary of Alexander the Great, would put his pictures where the public could see them and then stand out of sight so he could listen to their comments. A shoemaker once faulted the painter for a sandal with one loop too few, which Apelles corrected. The shoemaker, emboldened by this acceptance of his views, then criticised the subject’s leg. To this Apelles is reported as replying (no doubt with expletives deleted) that the shoemaker should not judge beyond his sandals, in other words that critics should only comment on matters they know something about. In modern English, we might say “the cobbler should stick to his last”, a proverb that comes from the same incident. (A last is a shoemaker’s pattern, ultimately from a Germanic root meaning to follow a track, hence footstep.)

What Pliny actually wrote was ne supra crepidam judicaret, where crepidam is a sandal or the sole of a shoe, but the idea has been expressed in several ways in Latin tags, such as Ne sutor ultra crepidam (sutor means “cobbler”, a word still known in Scotland in the spelling souter). The best-known version is the abbreviated tag ultra crepidam, “beyond the sole”, from which Hazlitt formed ultracrepidarian.

Crepidam derives from Greek krepis, a shoe; it has no link with words like decrepit or crepitation (which are from Latin crepare, to creak, rattle, or make a noise) or crepuscular (from the Latin word for twilight), though crepidarian is a very rare adjective meaning “pertaining to a shoemaker”.

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Copyright © Michael Quinion, 1996–. All rights reserved.
Page created 19 Apr. 2003

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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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Last modified: 19 April 2003.