The Grammarphobia Blog

The great deign

Q: On the recent 20th anniversary of Clarence Thomas’s joining the Supreme Court, I was reminded of his characterization of the Senate hearings as “a high-tech lynching for uppity blacks who in any way deign to think for themselves.” As an uppity black who dares to think for myself, I was scandalized that a Yale Law School graduate didn’t know the meaning of “deign.”

A: We don’t think anyone has ever written to us before about “deign,” probably because it’s only occasionally used these days. That’s a shame, because it’s a great old word and deserves to be preserved.

You’re right—it doesn’t mean dare. The Oxford English Dictionary defines it this way: “To think it worthy of oneself (to do something); to think fit, vouchsafe, condescend.”

In Justice Thomas’s defense, we might note that “deign” isn’t exactly a household word. (Many of the Google hits it fetches are misspellings of “design.”) On the other hand, anybody who uses an uncommon word should be sure he knows what it means.

When “deign” does legitimately appear it’s often used in a negative way, as in this example from the New York Times a couple of months ago:

“Celebrities and other well-heeled folks don’t usually deign to engage in such hoi-polloi amusements as Whac-a-Mole.”

Or as in this headline, from the Onion, about last spring’s royal nuptials: “Millions of People Prince William Would Never Deign To Speak To Captivated By Royal Wedding.”

In fact, there’s a certain dignity—whether royal or not—in deigning to do something.

The Latin ancestor of “deign” is dignare (to deem worthy or think fit), from dignus (worthy). And “deign” has several English relatives from the same Latin source: “dignity,” “dignify,” “disdain,” “indignant,” and a distant cousin, “dainty.”

The verb “deign” came into English from Old French in the early 1300s, according to citations in the OED. It can be found in English literature from Chaucer to Milton and beyond.

Here it is in Shakespeare’s Henry VI, Part 3 (from the 1590s): “And all those friends, that deine to follow mee.” And here it is in Milton’s Paradise Lost (1667): “Raphael, the sociable Spirit, that deign’d / To travel with Tobias.”

More recently, we like this citation (which we’ve expanded) from Matthew Arnold’s Mixed Essays (1879): “The grave and silent peasant whose very dog will hardly deign to bark at you.” In other words, the dog will barely dignify you with a bark!

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