Word of the Week: Demur

Demur – Fickle and demure

‘Dark and brooding, fickle and demure,

And I think still after all these years…’

Charlie Fink just skims the surface of this week’s lovely linguistic story in Still After All These Years, a track from Noah and the Whale’s last album, Heart of Nowhere. (Read this first, since you’re hooked, then check it out. YouTube link below.)

Most of us are familiar with the adjective ‘demure’ meaning ‘reserved, modest, and shy’, typically relating to a woman and her conduct; the opposite of ‘brazen’ or ‘shameless’. But, recently, I’ve encountered the verb ‘demur’ several times, and have been intrigued as to how this describing-word could translate to a doing-word.

To ‘demur’ is to ‘raise objections or show reluctance’ or to ‘object, especially on the grounds of scruples’. In law, though this is a dated term, it means to ‘put forward a demurrer’ (an objection which ‘grants the factual basis of an opponent’s point but dismisses it as irrelevant or invalid’). As a noun, it can also be used to refer to an instance of such an objection, or the act of objecting to something.

Objecting, especially on the basis of morality or scruples, does approach the meaning of our adjective ‘demure’, but it’s still difficult to see the link. Well, a little more etymological digging clears that issue up quite satisfactorily.

The archaic meaning of the verb ‘to demur’ is ‘to linger’, ‘delay’ or ‘hesitate’. This Middle English form entered English in the 13th century from the Old French verb ‘demourer’ (to remain) and adjective ‘demeure’ (delay), which were formed by a fusion of the Latin prefix ‘de’, meaning ‘away’ or ‘completely’, and ‘morari’, meaning to delay.

It’s easy to see the linguistic jump from ‘hesitate’ to ‘object’, and, from there, to the adjectival form ‘modest’. In fact, the sense of ‘shy or reserved’ which ‘demure’ carries actually only arose in the late 17th century – the late Middle English meaning was ‘sober, serious, reserved’, which arose from our verb ‘demur’ alongside influence from the Old French ‘mur’, meaning ‘grave’ (from the Latin ‘maturus’, meaning ‘ripe or mature’).

In Noah and the Whale’s story of enduring attraction we don’t really need an etymological history to get the picture of Lisa which the lyrics paint for us, but, whilst it’s never a necessity, it’s always a bonus when we can add a pretty sophisticated, all-purpose (verb, noun and closely-related adjective), and interesting word to our ever-expanding vocabulary.



One Comment Add yours

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