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Pronounced /ˈkɒntjuːmɪlɪ/Help with pronunciation

Contumely is insolent or insulting language or treatment. Most of us first came across this word in Hamlet’s soliloquy, “Th’ oppressor’s wrong, the proud man’s contumely”, and were puzzled by it, as it’s hardly a word in common use.

I would have laid bets that it’s now obsolete, except that a search found this sentence from an issue of a British newspaper, the Daily Mail, of November 2003: “Yet it is hard to see how the monarchy may be delivered from contempt and contumely until the immediate crisis is faced down.”

The word came into English from Old French contumelie, which in turn derives from Latin contumelia. That seems most likely to be a combination of con-, with, plus tumere, to swell. The link is that the swelling up was with misplaced or ill-judged pride, leading to arrogant behaviour.

There’s no agreement about how to pronounce contumely. Some people say it as three syllables, /ˈkɒntjuːmlɪ/ Help with IPA, some as four, /ˈkɒntjuːmɪlɪ/; most stress it on the first syllable, but some prefer the second, especially when they say it as four syllables, /kɒnˈtjuːmɪlɪ/.

That’s not really a problem for most of us, since we’re hardly likely to want to say it unless we’re playing Hamlet; in that case, the scansion of Shakespeare’s blank verse requires three syllables with the stress on the first.

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Copyright © Michael Quinion, 1996–. All rights reserved.
Page created 15 May 2004

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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.
This page URL: http://www.worldwidewords.org/weirdwords/ww-con1.htm
Last modified: 15 May 2004.