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Pronounced /ɛɡˈzɪmɪəs/Help with pronunciation

One of the first pieces that I wrote for World Wide Words, nearly 20 years ago, was on inkhorn terms. They are bookish words of the sixteenth century, for the most part generated from classical Latin or Greek precursors, which we invented to fill what seemed to their creators to be gaps in the language.

Some achieved a permanent place in our vocabularies, but most disappeared again through being thought unnecessary or pretentious, such as adnichilate (destitute), exolete (obsolete), oblatrant” (reviling), pervicacy (obstinacy) and trutinate (estimate). A small number survived but never quite fitted in, remaining on the margins as the province of wordsmiths with a taste for the exotic or obscure. Eximious is one such. It refers to something excellent and derives from the Latin adjective eximius, choice or select, a relative of the verb eximěre, to take out or remove. Relatives in English include example and exempt.

Eximious appeared first in The Breviary of Health, a book of 1547 by Andrew Borde, who was variously a monk, writer of an excellent travel book about Europe, spy for Thomas Cromwell, popular physician and reputed compiler of several books of jokes (he wrote in the Breviary that nothing comforted the heart so much as honest mirth and good company). He died in prison, having — it’s said — been found guilty of keeping three whores in his chamber in Winchester, though a contemporary explained that he was merely pimping them for members of the clergy.

He wrote in the Breviary about “The eximious and arcane science of physic”, that is, the excellent and mysterious science of medicine. That comment notably contains two neologisms, since he is also the first known user of arcane. He created other medical terms in the book which are still familiar, such as constipated, hydrophobia, head louse and ulcerated, but many of his terms didn’t catch on: a writer two centuries after him observed that he was as fond of hard and uncouth words as any quack could be.

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

Page created 26 Oct 2013