Adumbrate – A Rare Find
‘Adumbrate’, a ‘formal’ verb which takes an object, has three primary meanings to accompany its lilting muddle of consonants.
The first is ‘represent in outline’, as in give the main points of a plan or description. From this we have a subtle and more physical sub-meaning: ‘indicate faintly’, as in ‘the shape was only adumbrated by the meagre light’.
The second is ‘foreshadow (a future event)’, and the third is ‘overshadow’. So, interestingly (well, depending on how much of a language nerd you are), ‘to adumbrate’ can have both the sense of slightly illuminating something as well as dimming it. Whilst all these three meanings have a clear semantic link of giving an impression of something, one is figuratively or literally outlining its object, one is hanging over it, and the other is hinting towards it in the future.
But – sorry, semantics – etymology really steals the show on this one. ‘Adumbrate’ entered English as a verb in the late 16th century, a variation of the Latin ‘adumbrat’ (meaning ‘shaded’), which came from the Latin ‘adumbrare’. This was formed from the Latin prefix ‘ad’ (meaning ‘to’, acting as an intensifier) and ‘umbrare’ (meaning ‘cast a shadow’). But the story doesn’t end – or rather, start – there. This Latin verb was derived from the noun ‘umbra’, meaning ‘shadow’. So ‘shadow’ bred its own verb, which in turn bred a past participle that can also be used as an adjective (‘shaded’), which in turn created another verb. What a linguistic tale.
As the editor of this entry in the Merriam-Webster Dictionary notes, ‘adumbrate’ is used more in academic and political speech and writing than for everyday purposes, despite the attraction of its differing and subtle shades of meaning, and its resonating cadence. In one sense, this seems like a minor tragedy. But perhaps it’s best that such lovely words remain rare – so that their magic isn’t worn away by the corrosive ordinariness of everyday use, and so that we retain the excitement of discovering or stumbling across them every now and then.