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Home / Art and Culture / Word of the Week: Saturnine - A grump by any other name

Word of the Week: Saturnine - A grump by any other name

The word traces its origins to Saturn, named for the god Saturnus.

art-and-culture Updated: Apr 26, 2020 08:37 IST
Shashi Tharoor
Shashi Tharoor
Hindustan Times
Anyone of a dark disposition, somewhat cold, remote or forbidding in manner, and grave and slow in movement and speech, was described as “Saturnine”. (Representational Image)
Anyone of a dark disposition, somewhat cold, remote or forbidding in manner, and grave and slow in movement and speech, was described as “Saturnine”. (Representational Image)(Unsplash)

In the old days—and as we well know, it’s still true these days in our country—people ascribed many qualities to the planets. In 15th century Europe, savants believed that the astrological influence of the planet Saturn -- which was considered in those days to be the planet most remote from the Sun and thus the darkest, coldest and slowest in its orbit – would generate the same qualities in human beings. Accordingly, anyone of a dark disposition, somewhat cold, remote or forbidding in manner, and grave and slow in movement and speech, was described as “Saturnine” (though the capital S has long since given way to the small letter).

saturnine (adj), gloomy, morose, sluggish, grave, “literally born under the influence of the planet Saturn.”Usage: His looks were so saturnine that even when he had good news to impart, he conveyed it with the air of someone announcing a tragedy.

Saturnine, of course, traces its origins to the proper noun Saturn, a planet named for the Latin god, Saturnus—one of the oldest Roman gods, the god of agriculture and harvests. The once-farthest and still-biggest planet, and the seventh day of the week, Saturday, are named after Saturnus as well. (In Hindi, Saturn is Shani, and Saturday Shanivaar, a similarity that occurs in other Indian languages too: for instance, in Malayalam, it is Shani and Shani-azhacha). In the Middle Ages Saturn was the technical name for lead, and Saturnism remains a word for lead poisoning today. Many Hindus have been warned by their astrologers of the negative effects of Saturn on their horoscopes—Shani dosha—and wear lead rings to propitiate the malign disposition of the planet.

Hindustantimes

The word saturnine (and the noun for the characteristic it describes, saturninity) has been popular for some time with those of a literary bent to describe the humour or personality of someone whom we might otherwise call depressed, gloomy, melancholic, pessimistic, sullen or simply a bit grumpy. Though the word implies that the person we are describing was born under the influence of the planet Saturn, today that is a detail of the word’s origin rather than a direct connotation. Most people who use the word in English do not seriously believe, nor intend to imply, that the character in question is like that because of Saturn predominating in his horoscope!

Saturnine usually refers to a fundamental disposition in a person that is so characteristic of him that it is basic to his nature: “That saturnine bureaucrat doesn’t even return a polite greeting if you meet him on the street.” It can, however, also be used for a temporary frame of mind, such as a negative mood caused by an unexpected event: “That poor ex-MLA has been a bit saturnine since her party overlooked her for an election ticket”, for instance. One can be saturnine in manner—“a saturnine expression on his face”—or in speech: “He answered saturninely, ‘I do not care’”. It’s also a word used to describe a certain kind of appearance: “The brooding actor playing the anti-hero was handsome in a malignant and saturnine way.” Paradoxically, there is a second word that comes to us from the same mythological origins, saturnalia. The paradox is that while saturnine is all about gloom, saturnalia is the opposite, and refers to debauched revelry: a Saturnalia is ‘a wild gathering involving excessive drinking and promiscuity’. The reason is fascinating: since Saturn was the presiding deity of the harvest, the Romans built a temple to worship Saturn on the Capitoline hill, and organised a day long feast on December 17 called the Saturnalia to celebrate the winter planting of crops.

Over time, this celebration was extended to be a week long and became a major holiday on the calendar, a time of partying and gift-giving. As people let their hair down, all rules of conventional etiquette were broken and moral restrictions loosened; alcohol flowed and the holiday week became known for drunken merrymaking, orgies and festivities. Ironic, therefore, that the same planet has lent its name to two opposite dispositions: saturnine and saturnalia.

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