Challenging Word of the Week: fustian

(FUS chun) n., adj.

A strange word, fustian, in the diversity and apparent dissociation of its several meanings. First of all, fustian is the name of a thick twilled cotton fabric, or a blend of cotton and flax or low grade wool with a short nap, usually dyed a dark color, and as an adjective, fustian describes cloth so made. But fustian is now used chiefly in a wholly different sense, miles from cloth or fabric: It means “bombast,” written or spoken, “turgid, inflated language, purple prose,” and finally, “claptrap, rant, hogwash, palaver, prattle, drivel”; and, as an adjective, “pompous, bombastic, nonsensical, worthless.” Fustian is a Middle English word, from Old French fustaigne, derived from Middle Latin fustaneus , referring to cloth made in El-Fustat, a suburb of Cairo. This peculiar dichotomy of meanings suggests that the material from El-Fustat was of pretty poor value. Shall we complicate matters further? Fustian is also the name of a drink made of white wine, egg yolk, lemon, spices and other miscellaneous ingredients – a concoction with possibilities. To fustianize (FUS chun ize) is to write in a bombastic manner, and a writer who descends to that level is a fustianist (FUS chun ist). From the pen of the English poet Alexander Pope (1688-1744), in the Epistle to Dr. Arbuthnot, out of his Prologue to Imitations of Horace, flow these words: “Means not, but blunders round about meaning; and he whose fustian’s so bad, it is not poetry, but prose run mad.”

Shakespeare used fustian in Othello (Act II, Scene 3) when Cassio, in despair after Othello cashiers him, cries: “I will rather sue to be despised rather than deceive so good a commander…Drunk!…and squabble, swagger, swear and discourse fustian with one’s own shadow!” In Henry IV, Part 2 (Act II, Scene 4), Doll Tearsheet tells Bardolph: “For God’s sake, thrust him (Pistol) down stairs! I cannot endure such a fustian rascal!” And in Twelfth Night (Act II, Scene 5), after hearing Malvolio’s doggerel, Fabian exclaims, “A fustian riddle!” All these uses refer to bombast, prattle and drivel.

This selection is taken from the book, “1000 Most Challenging Words” by Norman W. Schur, ©1987 by the Ballantine Reference Library, Random House.

I post a weekly “Challenging Words” definition to call more attention to this delightful book and to promote interesting word usage in the blogosphere. I challenge other bloggers to work the current word into a post sometime in the coming week. If you manage to do so, please leave a comment or a link to where I can find it.

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