clement, inclement, clemency

Fill in the blank: “inclement ________.”  That’s right “weather.” Inclement is one of those unusual adjectives used only to describe one thing. Even the OED gives as its first definition, “Of climate or weather: Not mild or temperate; extreme; severe. (Usually applied to cold or stormy weather; rarely of severe heat or drought.)” The second definition, “Not merciful or kindly; pitiless, harsh, severe, cruel” is labeled obsolete.

Although Neddy Merrill, the protagonist of John Cheever’s classic 1964 story, “The Swimmer,” speaks of “clement weather,” the word clement is becoming rare. A related word, clemency, meaning ‘mildness or gentleness of temper, as shown in the exercise of authority or power; mercy, leniency’ is still frequently used in legal matters.

All three words come from the Latin clēment-em ‘mild, placid, gentle.’ With clement falling out of fashion inclement is on its way to becoming a lonely negative. It’s already a ______. Hmm. I can’t fill in the blank this time. Does anyone know a term for an adjective used only to modify a certain noun? “Inclement weather” is a set phrase, but there must be a more specific term.


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