The Grammarphobia Blog

Trepid, trepidant, trepidatious

Q: My dictionary has the word “trepidant,” but no definition or example. I believe it means timid, but I’d like to see how it’s used in a sentence before I use it myself.

A: We’ve found the adjective “trepidant” in several standard dictionaries, including Merriam-Webster Unabridged, which defines it as “timid, trembling.” But it’s rarely used, which explains why you’ve had trouble finding an example.

M-W Unabridged also has two related adjectives: “trepidatious,” which is defined as “feeling trepidation: apprehensive nervous,” and “trepid,” defined as “timorous, trembling.”

All three adjectives, as well as the noun “trepidation” and the obsolete verb “trepidate,” are ultimately derived from trepidāre, classical Latin for to hurry, bustle, be agitated, or be alarmed.

“Trepidation” is the oldest of the English words and the most common today. When it showed up in the early 1600s, “trepidation” referred to a vibrating, oscillating, or rocking movement.

The first example in the Oxford English Dictionary is from Of the Proficience and Advancement of Learning, a 1605 book by the philosopher and scientist Francis Bacon:

“Massiue bodies … haue certaine trepidations and wauerings before they fixe and settle.”

However, the noun soon took on the modern sense of “tremulous agitation; confused hurry or alarm; confusion; flurry; perturbation,” according to the OED.

The dictionary’s first citation for the new sense is from another work by Bacon, a 1625 collection of his essays: “There vseth to be more trepidation in Court, vpon the first Breaking out of Troubles, then were fit.”

The now obsolete verb “trepidate” showed up around the same time, in The English Dictionarie: Or, an Interpreter of Hard English Words (1623), by Henry Cockeram: “Trepidate, to tremble for feare.”

The OED says the rare adjective “trepid” showed up in the mid-1600s, meaning “trembling; agitated; fearful.”

The first of three examples is from Sacred Principles, Services, and Soliloquies, a 1650 book of devotions by William Brough: “Trembling, and chilnesse, and confusion in the powers of action … a stupid, trepid, troubled motion.”

“Trepidant,” the adjective you’re asking about, showed up more than two centuries later. Oxford describes it as rare, and defines it as “trembling with fear or agitation.”

The first example is from an 1891 paper by Philip Coombs Knapp in the Journal of Nervous and Mental Disease: “Astasia-abasia, with the report of a case of paroxysmal trepidant abasia associated with paralysis agitans.”

Here’s a slightly later OED example in plain English: “In either party are many trepidant hopes and fears” (from the July 2, 1892, issue of Black & White, a British illustrated weekly).

We’ve found an even clearer example in Notable U.S. Ambassadors Since 1775, a 1997 book by Cathal J. Nolan.

This is a description of Clifton Reginald Wharton Sr., an African-American diplomat, taking the Foreign Service exam in the 1920s:

“He scored well on the written part of the examination and, although somewhat trepidant about facing an all-white oral examination board, he sailed through their questions.”

We’ll end with “trepidatious,” the most common of the adjectives now. It showed up in the early 20th century, the OED says, and means “apprehensive, nervous; filled with trepidation.”

The dictionary’s earliest example is from The Sirdar’s OathA Tale of the Northwest Frontier (1904), by Bertram Mitford:

“Hilda looked up from the papers she had been busy with as he entered—in fact, made a guilty and trepidatious attempt at sweeping them out of sight.”

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