Certain words help us to remember the forgettable or forgotten.
Barbara Petite, a loyal reader of this column who works for the UW Libraries, wrote in with a fine suggestion for just such a word. Petite says she was inspired by the Victorian novelist and biographer Elizabeth Gaskell (1810-1865), whose work is, sadly, sometimes neglected. Gaskell’s rich narratives depicting families affected by the Napoleonic Wars could be called “quondam” by Americans living in the 21st century, for example.
Pronounced “kwan-dum” as an adjective, it describes “things, qualities, conditions, etc. … that once [were] or existed …” and anything or anyone of an otherwise erstwhile nature, according to the Oxford English Dictionary. In “Love’s Labor’s Lost,” the perilously pedantic Sir Nathaniel talks about a “quondam day” with the equally insufferable Holofernes, referring also to a conversation that had “been sharp and sententious; pleasant without scurrility, witty without affection, audacious without impudence, learned without opinion, and strange without heresy.”
Quite a quondam day, indeed! Written in the 1590s, this is the first instance in English in which the word is used to describe things. Somewhat more archaically, to describe people, it had been in use since the middle of the 16th century.
Its first use, actually, was as a noun; the OED says that it was used as a stand-in for any “former Fellow of All Souls College” at Oxford University. In this sense, it could also refer to any “person who [had] been deposed or ejected.” Someone thus could be made into a quondam, or purposefully expunged from the college’s (or any other group’s) memory. C.S. Lewis would call this being tossed from the “inner ring” (not always a bad thing, if that ring is bad to begin with). All Souls, incidentally, was known until recently as being one of the hardest colleges to gain entrance to (at least on scholarship), with notorious one-word prompts for its essays, such as “innocence” (elaborate on that at length, and you’ll see how hard it can be).
Lest we get too far off etymological target, though, the early 16th century was characterized by a fascination with finding Latin roots for exciting words or introducing words rooted in Latin. “Quondam” was no exception, and, in fact, it’s a classical Latin word, with “cum” meaning “when,” and its associated ideas of “formerly.”
Some ideas and notions should perhaps be left as quondam, but I hope good ideas and authors, like Elizabeth Gaskell, can be rescued from quondamship.
If you have any word ideas or questions for me, for next week, please send them along to email@example.com. Until next time, take care!
Reach columnist Will Mari at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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