Sunday, May 04, 2008


The 2008 Traverse City Spelling Bee for Senior Citizens was held last Friday, and the performances were impressive, as usual. However, as Bee Master, I unwittingly created some feelings of dissatisfaction by including one of the words that took down a team.

I was surprised by the expressions of annoyance after the match, and I apologized for what was perceived to be the unfair insertion of an entirely esoteric word. I was a bit puzzled, since it’s a word that I’ve encountered all my life, but it may be worth pursuing for the sake of knowledge.

The word was contumacious [con-tuh-MAY-shus], and it is defined as obstinate; stubbornly disobedient; persistently, willfully, or overtly defiant of authority.

It comes from the Latin contumax (stem contumac-), stubborn or defiant. It also, according to Chambers/Murray Latin-English Dictionary, usually involved abusive, insulting, and demeaning language.

Now admittedly, it is not a word that will be found in most households, but it has been used in a few different contexts over the centuries, starting with the OED’s first instance in 1603. Some examples may help.

• “They solemnly denounced as contumacious . . . anyone opposing Dr Williams' appointment.” (Stephen Bates, "Solemn, arcane and ceremonial, church confirms its liberal new archbishop," The Guardian, December 3, 2002)

• “In all places too are Dissident Priests; whom the Legislative will have to deal with: contumacious individuals, working on that angriest of passions; plotting, enlisting.” (Thomas Carlyle, The French Revolution, Book 2.V)

• “Not far north of Pech-Merle, just short of a little village named Cras, lies a later relic of human society: traces of the Gaulish enclosed settlement known as the oppidum of Murcens, claimed by some to be the site of Uxellodunum, where in 52 B.C. Julius Caesar defeated the great chieftain Vercingetorix and, to discourage further opposition by the contumacious Gauls, chopped off the right hands of 6,000 warriors, thus eliminating Gaulish resistance to the Pax Romana.” (Peter Davison, "Province of the Past", The Atlantic, January 2001)

• “We believe trial judges confronted with disruptive, contumacious, stubbornly defiant defendants must be given sufficient discretion to meet the circumstances in each case.”
(Hugo LayFayette Black, Associate Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States from 1937 to 1971)

• “Contumacy, or contempt of court, is an obstinate disobedience of the lawful orders of a court. Simple disobedience does not constitute contumacy. Such crime springs only from unequivocal and stubborn resistance to the reiterated or peremptory orders of a legitimate court, and implies contempt or denial of its authority. The general law of the Church demands that the citation, or order to appear, be repeated three times (in the United States twice) before proceedings declaratory of contumacy take place.” (Roman Catholic Canon Law)

• “Contumacious conduct defined. Contumacious conduct consists of verbal or non-verbal acts which:
1. Embarrass or obstruct the Court in its administration of justice or derogate from its authority or dignity;
2. Bring the administration of justice into disrepute; or
3. Constitute disobedience of a court order or judgment.”
(19th circuit, State of Illinois: RULE13.01 PROCEEDINGS IN CONTEMPT)

• “THE CONTUMACIOUS WITNESSES.; They Will Be in Washington Monday to Plead to the Indictments.” (Headline, NY Times, July 1, 1894, Wednesday)

If nothing else, I am relieved that I did not include a kissing-cousin in the word list, namely, contumely [KON-tuh-may-lee]: “insolent reproach or abuse; insulting or offensively contemptuous language or treatment; despite; scornful rudeness; now, esp. such contemptuous treatment as tends to inflict dishonour and humiliation.” (Oxford English Dictionary)

That would have started a proper rhubarb.

SIDEBAR: Contumacious, the radio station

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