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Umbrage

Umbrage is offence or annoyance. These days we almost always take umbrage, the two words having been conjoined into a fixed phrase. It is less common to hear of people giving umbrage, though someone who takes umbrage presumably has had it inflicted on him by another. Or does this imbalance imply that the perceived offence is almost always in the mind of the receiver?

Umbrage derives from Latin umbra, shadow, and that was its first meaning in English. A tree might cast umbrage and in later centuries its foliage came to be its umbrage. Shelley wrote “The tall ash and oak, in mingled umbrage, sighed far above their heads.” In the time of Shakespeare, an umbrage was a shadowy outline (Hamlet uses it for the shadow of a man), which led to its suggesting somebody lurking out of plain view. From this grew ideas of being under the shadow of suspicion and being in disfavour and indirectly to our modern senses of annoyance, offence or resentment.

Umbrage has almost entirely severed its associations with shadows, but its adjective umbrageous usually refers to shade, most often that cast by trees. We have lost its relative umbratile, which once referred to a reclusive person, one who kept in the shade by staying indoors. However, we retain another relative, umbrella, originally a sunshade, which came into English via Italian.

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Copyright © Michael Quinion, 1996–. All rights reserved.
Page created 28 Sep. 2013

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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.
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Last modified: 28 September 2013.