Q: A column in the Washington Post refers to “the lapidary phrases of a Supreme Court opinion.” Is this an oddball use of the word?
A: The adjective “lapidary” can refer either to engraving on stone, especially stone monuments, or to writing that’s suitable for engraving on stone. However, that second sense is often used to describe writing that’s concise, precise, and elegant.
In the Washington Post column you cite, the editorial writer Charles Lane says, “If there is to be a right to die in the United States, democratic processes in the states and, possibly, Congress will establish its contours, not the lapidary phrases of a Supreme Court opinion.” In other words, the legalization of euthanasia won’t come from a well-written Supreme Court opinion.
In defining the adjective “lapidary,” nine of the ten standard dictionaries we regularly consult include such terms as “accurate,” “clever,” “concise,” “exact,” “elegant,” “precise,” “refined,” “short,” “simple,” and “well-written.” One dictionary, Macmillan, doesn’t have an entry for “lapidary” in either its US or UK editions.
Lexico (the former Oxford Dictionaries Online), defines this sense of “lapidary” as “elegant and concise, and therefore suitable for engraving on stone.” That is, appropriate for monumental writing, whether on granite or in print.
So the looser use of “lapidary” to describe writing that’s concise, precise, elegant, and so on is legitimate, but you’re probably not the only reader of the Post to be confused by it. For an Op-Ed piece, we’d use one or two of those dictionary terms above, depending on what we meant.
As for the word’s etymology, English borrowed “lapidary” from the classical Latin adjective lapidarius (of or relating to stone). In Latin, lapis and lapidis are the nominative singular and plural forms of the noun for stone.
When “lapidary” first appeared in English in the 14th century, it was a noun that had two meanings: (1) someone who cuts, polishes, or engraves precious stones, and (2) a treatise on precious stones. Sense #1 is standard today, but #2 is obsolete or historical, according to the Oxford English Dictionary.
Here’s an expanded version of the earliest OED citation for the first sense: “with precious iemmes figured in binding of gold, and with werk of the lapidarie grauen” (“with precious gems set in gold binding, and engraved with the lapidary’s work”). From Ecclesiastes 45:13 in the Wycliffe Bible of 1382.
And this is the first Oxford citation for the second sense: “The fynest stones faire / That men reden [read of] in the lapidaire.” From Hous of Fame, a Middle English poem by Geoffrey Chaucer, circa 1384.
The dictionary defines the adjective “lapidary,” which showed up in the early 18th century, as “engraved on stone, esp. monumental stones,” or “characteristic of or suitable for monumental inscriptions.”
The dictionary’s earliest example uses the term to describe writing that’s fit to be engraved. The citation, which we’ve expanded, is from a note in the biography of the Rev. John Barwick, Dean of St. Paul’s Cathedral in London:
“See a farther Account of him in Dr. Gower’s two Sermons preach’d on Occasion of his Death, and in Dr. Jenkins’s Lapidary Verses prefix’d to those Sermons.” From Life of Dr. Barwick (1724), a biography written in Latin by Peter Barwick, the dean’s brother, and translated into English by Hilkiah Bedford.
The next Oxford example refers to an actual inscription engraved in stone that was found among the ruins of a Roman amphitheater: “These Words, A SOLO FECIT, expressed, in the Lapidary Stile, that it was built from its very Foundation.” From A Compleat History of the Ancient Amphitheatres (1730), Alexander Gordon’s translation of a work by the Italian art critic Francesco Scipione Maffei.
The OED’s most recent example is from the Feb. 18, 1899, issue of the Academy, a London magazine: “A stanza [which] has a lapidary dignity, as of some thing carved in stone.”