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Whole lotta trepidatin’ goin’ on

Q: Hey, I’ve just referred to a group of workmates as “trepidated,” and I hereby record for posterity that I came up with it. Or did I?

A: Nope, you’re nearly a century late. “Trepidated” has been used adjectivally since the early 1800s to mean shaken, fearful, agitated, or disturbed.

Furthermore, several related words with a similar meaning—“trepidate,” “trepidating,” and “trepidatious”—have been around for quite some time too, with the oldest dating back to the early 1600s.

However, most of those are relatively rare or obsolete. The only one you’ll find today in standard dictionaries is “trepidatious.”

As we wrote in a 2007 post (later updated), six of the ten standard dictionaries we regularly consult recognize the adjective as standard English—all five of the American dictionaries and one of the five British. (All ten include the noun “trepidation.”)

All these words of agitation are ultimately derived from trepidare, a Latin verb meaning to hurry or bustle, as well as to be agitated or alarmed.

The first of them to appear in writing, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, is an adjective spelled “trepidat” or “trepidate.” The earliest example in the OED is from John Dove’s A Confutation of Atheisme (1605):

“The celestiall spheres in continuall volubilitye … their diurnall or daylye course from the East to the West, their retrograde and vyolent motion from the West to the East, their trepidat motion from the South to the North.”

Not many years later, the verb “trepidate,” meaning to shake or tremble with fear or agitation, showed up in writing.

The first citation in the OED is from a 1623 dictionary of “hard English words” compiled by Henry Cockeram: “Trepidate, to tremble for feare.”

The noun “trepidation,” meaning tremulous agitation or alarm, appeared soon after.

The earliest OED citation is from a 1625  essay by Francis Bacon: “There vseth to be more trepidation in Court, vpon the first Breaking out of Troubles, then were fit.”

The dictionary’s earliest example for the present participle “trepidating” used as an adjective is from The Light of Nature Pursued, a seven-volume philosophical opus by Abraham Tucker that was published 60 years after his death in 1774:

“A calm and steady alertness … never anxious nor trepidating.”

The dictionary doesn’t have an entry for the past participle “trepidated” used as an adjective, but we’ve had no trouble finding examples in digital databases.

The earliest is from “The Fatal Prophecy,” an 1838 story by Edward Stirling in the Monthly Magazine, a British periodical that published some of Charles Dickens’s Boz sketches:

“With a voice trepidated and wavering he called off his fierce tribe, and ’spite of their discontent and mutterings, he led them away from the scene of their guilt and carnage.”

The latecomer, “trepidatious,” meaning apprehensive or nervous, showed up in the early 20th century, according to OED citations.

We’ll end with a romantic use of the verb from The Travels of Antenor in Greece and Asia, an anonymous 1799 English version of a Greek manuscript found at Herculaneum:

“At first she attacked me by ogling me with amorous glances and languishing looks, to which I politely answered by some little strokes of gallantry, till, by insensible degrees, a kind of attachment began to be formed on both sides, and our hearts reciprocally trepidated with love.”

{Note: This post was updated on Feb. 19, 2020, to reflect newer dictionary information. A later post about “trepid,” “trepidant,” and “trepidatious” appeared in 2017.]

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