February 2, 2018

Etymology question of the day.

Is the word "effete" related to "fetus"?

ADDED: Perhaps you, like me, first notice this word when Vice President Spiro Agnew read these remarks in Houston, Texas in May 1970. These words (written by William Safire) are interestingly relevant today, so I'll print this out in full:
Sometimes it appears that we're reaching a period when our senses and our minds will no longer respond to moderate stimulation. We seem to be reaching an age of the gross, persuasion through speeches and books is too often discarded for disruptive demonstrations aimed at bludgeoning the unconvinced into action. The young--and by this I'd don't mean any stretch of the imagination all the young, but I'm talking about those who claim to speak for the young--at the zenith of physical power and sensitivity, overwhelm themselves with drugs and artificial stimulants. Subtlety is lost, and fine distinctions based on acute reasoning are carelessly ignored in a headlong jump to a predetermined conclusion. Life is visceral rather than intellectual. And the most visceral practitioners of life are those who characterize themselves as intellectuals. Truth is to them revealed rather than logically proved. And the principal infatuations of today revolve around the social sciences, those subjects which can accommodate any opinion, and about which the most reckless conjecture cannot be discredited. Education is being redefined at the demand of the uneducated to suit the ideas of the uneducated. The student now goes to college to proclaim, rather than to learn. The lessons of the past are ignored and obliterated, and a contemporary antagonism known as "The Generation Gap." A spirit of national masochism prevails, encouraged by an effete corps of impudent snobs who characterize themselves as intellectuals.
ALSO: I cut and pasted that text from The Pacifica Radio/UC Berkeley Social Activism Sound Recording Project, where "corps" was transcribed as "core," perhaps under the misimpression (recently displayed by President Obama) that "corps" is pronounced "corpse."

AND: I came across this topic reading a David Foster Wallace essay, "Twenty-Four Word Notes" (in this collection):
Effete — Here’s a word on which some dictionaries and usage authorities haven’t quite caught up with the realities of literate usage. Yes, the traditional meaning of effete is “depleted of vitality, washed out, exhausted”— and in a college paper for an older prof. you’d probably want to use it in only that way. But a great many educated people accept effete now also as a pejorative synonym for elite or elitist, one with an added suggestion of effeminacy, over-refinement, pretension, and/ or decadence; and in this writer’s opinion it is not a boner to use effete this way, since no other word has quite its connotative flavor. Traditionalists who see the extended definition as an error often blame Spiro Agnew’s characterization of some liberal group or other as an “effete corps of impudent snobs,” but there are deeper reasons for the extension, such as that effete derives from the Latin effetus, which meant “worn out from bearing children” and thus had an obvious feminine connotation. Or that historically effete was often used to describe artistic movements that had exhausted their vitality, and one of the main characteristics of a kind of art’s exhaustion was its descent into excessive refinement or foppery or decadence.

24 comments:

tcrosse said...

Google says it comes from no longer fertile, or all worn out from bearing young. Ex Fetus.

David said...

It will be now.

Tim in Vermont said...

Is the word baby related to Babylon?

n.n said...

1620s, "functionless as a result of age or exhaustion," from Latin effetus (usually in fem. effeta) "exhausted, unproductive, worn out (with bearing offspring), past bearing," literally "that has given birth," from a lost verb, *efferi, from assimilated form of ex "out" (see ex-) + fetus "childbearing, offspring" (see fetus). Figurative use is earliest in English; literal use is rare. Sense of "intellectually or morally exhausted" (1790) led to that of "decadent, effeminate" (by 1850s).
effete

late 14c., "the young while in the womb or egg" (tending to mean vaguely the embryo in the later stage of development), from Latin fetus (often, incorrectly, foetus) "the bearing or hatching of young, a bringing forth, pregnancy, childbearing, offspring," from suffixed form of PIE root *dhe(i)- "to suck."

In Latin, fetus sometimes was transferred figuratively to the newborn creature itself, or used in a sense of "offspring, brood" (as in Horace's "Germania quos horrida parturit Fetus"), but this was not the basic meaning. It also was used of plants, in the sense of "fruit, produce, shoot," and figuratively as "growth, production." The spelling foetus is sometimes attempted as a learned Latinism, but it is not historic.

fetus

Yes. Yes, it is.

tcrosse said...

Is ineffable related to unfuckable ?

rhhardin said...

fetifer adj causing fruitfulness
fetificare v to bring forth young
fetificus adj genital
fetare v to bring forth young, breed
fetura n breeding, gestation, parturation; the young offspring
fetus a having recently given birth, pregnant, fruitful
fetus n parturation, bearing of fruit, offspring, fruit

My own favorite English word is superfetatious. Waitress asking if I wanted walnuts on my fudge and ice cream, "That would be superfetatious." She appeared to understand.

rhhardin said...

effete would be ex-fet

traditionalguy said...

You are all wrong, as usual. Everyone knows that Festus was one of Matt Dillon's friends on Gunsmoke.

Then again, an effete fetus probably has special needs, like being raised be the Senator from New York.

robother said...

Interesting etymology. From actual procreative exhaustion from too much child-bearing to the exhaustion of an overly sophisticated elite incapable of troubling itself to reproduce or even justify its own existence. "Fighting vainly the old ennui."

traditionalguy said...

Talking about word usage power, you might check out Rose McGowan's tirade at Barnes and Nobles per Variety Mag. The Irish tiger sets them all straight. Rose should fill in for Sarah Sanders when Sarah takes vacations.

Tim in Vermont said...

I wanted to stand up and clap at the end of that rant. Like Canadians did for Joe.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pXtVrDPhHBg

CJ said...

The comedy-rock band The Tubes, who started out in the 1970s and are still(!) working, feature a fictional character named "Quay Lewd, effete British rock star". They may well have gotten the word from Safire.

Anonymous said...

Spiro sounds a lot smarter today than he did back then.

Not a nattering nabob at all.

tcrosse said...

Safire's coinage 'nattering nabobs of negativism' was actually written by his staffers, Norma Loquendi and Rosie Scenario.

Rob said...

Any discussion of "effete" is incomplete without mentioning Vice President Spiro Agnew's statement, "A spirit of national masochism prevails, encouraged by an effete core of impudent snobs who characterize themselves as intellectuals." Agnew, who went on to resign his office in return for not receiving jail time for having taken bribes as governor of Maryland, also waxed eloquent about "nattering nabobs of negativism" and "the hopeless, hysterical hypochondriacs of history." His speechwriter was William Safire, who must have enjoyed himself immensely. Years later, when Agnew was ordered by a Maryland court to pay the state $268,000 for bribes he had taken, Agnew tried (unsuccessfully) to have the payment treated as tax-deductible.

Agnew was far from the only Maryland official who took bribes during that period or engaged in conflicts of interest. The zeitgeist can perhaps best be summed up by the story of state senator Joe Staszak, who owned a tavern and sponsored a bill to prevent competition from liquor wholesalers. When asked if he had a conflict of interest, Staszak replied, "How does this conflict with my interest?"

Rob said...

Oops, Ann got there before me, while my comment was in the works. Sorry.

Steven Wilson said...

Agnew could have been President except for stooping to penny ante corruption. He was feisty enough he might have beaten Carter and then it's unlikely we would have Reagan.

But you are right, Livermoron, he does sound a lot smarter now than he did then. Reminiscent of Mark Twain's quip about his father.

buwaya said...

The two old American columnists I miss most are Safire and Seligman.

Ann Althouse said...

"She appeared to understand."

I'm sure she did, but the question is what she understood — perhaps more than you intended to say.

rhhardin said...

I'm sure she did, but the question is what she understood — perhaps more than you intended to say.

I was a counter customer every day, who she knew as the one who wrote math on napkins.

Char Char Binks said...

Defeat the fetus.

Josephbleau said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Josephbleau said...

In reading Spiro's comment in its expanded uncut form ( I never heard the whole context before,) I am quite sympathetic with his statement of opinion. Indeed we see that "Reality is what doesn't go away when you stop believing in it." I understand why our politicians are so disappointing. Who can stand when the entrenched bureaucrats say "you must protect us from our willful crimes or Government itself will be debased." A fraternity of past winners initiating new conspirators.

Ralph L said...

in this writer’s opinion it is not a boner to use effete this way

Do the effete have boners?