Valentine No Longer Holds Love in Contempt

The waiter tilted his head, “Where did you get that glass, ma’am? Martinis aren’t on the menu here.”

“I won’t be needing it then,” I said, tucking it into my purse. “Bring me the tart tatin and the large Ethiopian coffee, please.”

Ms. Khan passed on dessert. “Do you have contempt for my employer?” she asked.

“Certainly not. I have the greatest respect – Oh, you mean she wants to know the etymology of contempt.”

Ms. Khan rested her chin on her hand and waited.

“Well, it turns out to be unrelated to the temp- words or to tempt and attempt.”

I turned the screen of my phone toward her. “Here’s what the OED says about the etymology:

< Latin contempt-us (u stem) scorn, < contempt- participial stem of contemnĕre to contemn v.”

Contemn? Is that a variant of condemn?”

“Good guess,” I said, “but no. See, it comes into English from Old French, which got it from:

Latin contem(p)n-ĕre , < con- intensive + temnĕre to slight, scorn, disdain, despise.

“It means ‘to treat as of small value, treat or view with contempt; to despise, disdain, scorn, slight.’The dictionary says it’s now chiefly a literary word. I doubt that anyone has used it since the 19th century, but there’s an apt quote for today in Shakespeare. In Two Gentlemen of Verona Valentine says:

I have done penance for contemning Love.”

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2 Responses to Valentine No Longer Holds Love in Contempt

  1. My high school Latin served me well, and I remembered contemno as soon as you began to wonder about the etymology of contempt.

    You seem to be right in doubting that many writers have used contemn for the last century. I did a brief Internet search, and all the occurrences from the past few decades were either in dictionaries or other books about language, or in translations or editions of older works.

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