July 11, 2013

Case File #013.07.11: PETULANT

When petulant first entered the English language around 1600, it meant “immoral, immodest, or bawdy.” The word was lifted directly from the Middle French, which was itself derived from the Latin petulantis, the genitive form of petulans. Interestingly enough, the Latin adjective has two meanings, “immoral or depraved” and “insolent or irascible,” and as with most such multipurpose words, the intended sense is determined via context. Yet when the Latin was used as the basis for the Middle French word petulant, only one meaning—to wit, the one alleging lewd behavior—was retained, and this was the sense that also passed over to English. In 1775, however, British scholar and lexicographer Samuel Johnson published an English dictionary in which he basically defined petulant as “peevish or cantankerous,” a definition that acknowledges the semantic flip side of the Latin source, and this quickly became the word's sole meaning and has remained so to this day.

©2013 Michael R. Gates

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