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My secret is out. I admit it. I am palpebrous.

However, my confession will mean nothing unless I explain the word, because it won’t be understood even by that minuscule proportion of the population who know the Latin from which it was taken.

It’s so rare I have been able to find only one modern example:

Don’s deep voice, his palpebrous, leonine features, his evident learning, his almost BBC-like diction, his entire bearing, might seem so grand as to be intimidating to a young student.

Geographical Review, July 2009.

A member of the medical profession will assume it has something to do with my eyes, since a palpebra is an eyelid, a term taken from classical Latin and so having palpebrae as its plural. Zoologists may recognise it as a relative of the second half of the scientific name Paleosuchus palpebrosus for Cuvier’s dwarf caiman (it means to have prominent eyelids). It also appears in Zosterops palpebrosus, the formal term for the oriental white-eye, a little bird so named because it has a prominent white ring around its eye. A scientific relative, now wholly defunct, is palpebrate, having eyelids.

We’re in the right area, but palpebrous came about through a misapprehension by Benjamin Smart, a nineteenth-century elocutionist and grammarian. In the second edition of A New Critical Pronouncing Dictionary of the English Language, he defined palpebrous to mean a person with prominent eyebrows.

So now you know.

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Copyright © Michael Quinion, 1996–. All rights reserved.
Page created 25 May 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.

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Last modified: 25 May 2013.