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Pronounced /ˈvɛrɪkʌnd/Help with pronunciation

A verecund person is modest, bashful or shy.

The Oxford English Dictionary’s entry for this word, published back in 1916, doesn’t suggest it’s obsolete or even rare. In fact, it hasn’t yet quite vanished, though it has never been common. You need to have learned Latin in your youth — once standard for educated writers of earlier generations, of course — to have been likely to include this word in your prose.

Its heyday, insofar as it ever had one, was roughly in the half century after 1850. It turns up in an article penned by an erudite columnist in the issue of The Marion Weekly Star of Ohio dated 17 February 1912, in a comment that can only make us marvel at how times have changed:

What this country needs is men who are not afraid to proclaim to the public their virtues of mind and character. There is too little of the projection of self into the arena. Our politics is speckled with men who are so diffident and verecund they never say a word about themselves or their achievements.

The only example I can find from modern times is in Translations by the Irish playwright Brian Friel, which was first performed in 1980. The play is set in 1833 and in it characters speak Irish, Greek, Latin and English. So an obscure Latinate word fits the context perfectly: “He speaks — on his own admission — only English; and to his credit he seemed suitably verecund.”

The word is from Latin verecundus, which derives from the verb vereri, to revere or fear.

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Page created 23 Feb 2008