Wednesday, 13 March 2013


”If you’re tempted to use a fancy word, make sure first that you know what it means,” is excellent advice from the English teacher to the teenager writing an essay in school, but also a sensible maxim for any journalist.

Here’s Aidan Foster-Carter, in Saturday’s Guardian. I should say that he’s billed as “honorary senior research fellow in Sociology and Modern Korea at Leeds University, and a freelance writer, consultant and broadcaster on both Koreas”, though the University of Leeds website seems to have no trace of him.

According to LDOCE, jejune means ‘too simple’ (of ideas) or ‘boring’, and is pronounced dʒɪˈdʒuːn. The OED expands on this:

Perhaps Mr Foster-Carter does indeed find the North Korean leader, Kim Jong-Un kim dʑʌŋ ɯn, simple and boring, intellectually unsatisfying. I’ve an awful suspicion, though, that he merely wants to characterize him as young and callow.

The OED indeed notes a further, etymologically unjustified, sense (first citation 1898):

Etymologically, we classicists know, jejune comes from the Latin jējūnus ‘hungry; empty; scanty; dry,meagre’. For Cicero, someone who is jējūnus hasn’t had their breakfast. This meaning is preserved in the French jeûne ʒøn ‘fast’, whence the familiar (petit) déjeuner ‘breakfast’. Nothing to do with jeune ʒœn ‘young’, from Latin jŭvĕnis.

Now we see why people can occasionally be heard pronouncing the word in a sort-of-French way, as ʒəˈʒuːn. I wonder if perhaps Mr Foster-Carter is one of them.

In anatomy, the jejunum dʒɪˈdʒuːnəm is part of the small intestine.


  1. Tsk tsk Mr Foster-Carter is Eton and Balliol, too !

    Martin Ball

  2. The OED indeed notes a further, etymologically unjustified, sence...

    I think the whole post fell off after you made this typo. Some will say, you criticize people for not knowing what jejune means, though it is debatable whether that is the case here, but you can't spell sense?

  3. As an aside, as a USAian reading the excerpted text, I suddenly realized that I did not know the actual definition of "clapped out." (I've since looked it up.) My first thought was "riddled with gonorrhea," but that seemed too harsh, even for Mr. Rodman.

  4. In the more than a century since the OED1 entry was written, 'immature, childish' has become a standard American sense of jejune, as a look at, AHD4, RHD2, and Collins American will readily establish. Of the four OED quotations, two are American, and the other two are from G. B. Shaw and the Economist, both of which are known to be influenced by American English.

    One has to take apparently prescriptive remarks by the OED editors with great caution. The note says only that the origin of the sense is based on mistaken etymology, not that there is anything wrong with the current use of the sense. If we are to reject all words with mistaken etymologies, we will have to do without bittern, bridegroom, by-law, cherry, chintz, culprit and many another word later in the alphabet.

    1. "a standard American sense of jejune"

      In my half century and some of living in America, I have encountered jejune in print perhaps a dozen times. The majority of these were in Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, when somebody or t'other refers to Stephen Dedalus as a "jejune Jesuit."

  5. Curiously, the 'puerile' sense doesn't feature in a 1967 Funk and Wagnalls dictionary that I have.


    1. Steve, are you the person with the highest number of English dictionaries in the world?

  6. For "with mistaken etymologies" above, read "influenced in sound, sense, or spelling by mistaken etymologies".

  7. Gentlemen,

    should this be of any importance or interest to you: this non-native speaker of English, who only exceptionally hears and/or speaks English (but reads and writes English every day) remembers having used the word 'jejune' exactly in the sense (not 'sence') and pronunciation as indicated above (he can't, though, remember in what context). Long ago, sort of, maybe like two decades ago. Maybe someone's talk, people give ever more insipid talks, methinks.

    I remember, though, the short story (if such it be) by Edouard Dujardin 'Les lauriers sont de'ja` coupe's' described by a critic as 'jejune'. The writer was considered pretty eccentric by some. But that was even longer ago.

    The above 'confession' does not fit very well with the tenor of Mr. Foster-Carter's advice (which I quite liked and approve of) but such is often the case with people who learn languages primarily from books rather than living speech.

    Cum ieiunatis, nolite fieri ... tristes (Mt 6, 16)

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