"Love follows knowledge."
"Beauty above all beauty!"
– St. Catherine of Siena

Sunday, May 8, 2016

Word of the Day: Scorbutic

I haven’t had a “Word of the Day” post in quite a while.  I never posted them every day to begin with, so it’s not exactly precisely denominated.  I should have called them “Word of Interest” or something like that.  Perhaps I’ll do so in the future.

Why is “scorbutic” a word of interest?  It caught my eye while reading a short story, “A House of Gentlefolks,” by Evelyn Waugh.  I’ve never seen the word before, and one usually runs across words that obscure in non-fiction, not fiction.  Waugh obviously is a very erudite man who loves to challenge readers from his deep well of diction.  Here is the passage with the word.  It comes from the opening paragraphs of the story.

I arrived in Vanburgh at five to one.  It was raining hard by now and the dreary little station yard was empty except for a deserted and draughty-looking taxi.  They might have sent a car for me. 

How far was it to Stayle?  About three miles, the ticket collector told me.  Which part of Stayle might I be wanting?  The Duke’s?  That was a good mile the other side of the village.

They really might have sent a car.

With a little difficulty I found the driver of the taxi, a sulky and scorbutic young man who may well have been the bully of some long-forgotten school story.  It was some consolation to feel that he must be getting wetter than I.  It was a beastly drive.

The only work of Waugh’s I’ve ever read before was his novel, Brideshead Revisited, a truly great English novel of the 20th century.  This is the first I’ve read of his short stories, and I have to say I’m impressed.  I picked this story at random but with an eye toward an early work.  “A House of Gentlefolks” is listed as having been first published in 1927.  Without getting into a deep analysis—and this is not a highly complicated story with intricate nuances, but just a well written piece—we have a narrator, Ernest Vaughan, who is a young man being hired to tutor the Duke’s mentally underdeveloped grandson with a tour of Europe.  The grandson is a young man himself of eighteen.  The Duke, his wife, and his sister-in-law, all aged, are in reduced terms, despite the aristocratic titles.  The key detail that we learn is that the story is set a good ten years after the war, that is, World War I, of course, which would have started in 1914.  This is a post war story, a story of a declined Britain.  Indeed the town of Stayle is dilapidated, and noticeably puns with the word “stale.”  The story is bracketed with characters who are too young and too old to have served.  The in between, such as the Duke’s footmen, “have been killed in the war.” 

Which brings us to the scorbutic taxi driver.  The taxi driver is a minor character.  The drive in from the station serves only as an entry point for the story.  Once the narrator is dropped off at the Duke’s, the driver disappears.  So why such a distinct detail as being scorbutic, and what exactly does it mean?

It sounded like some sort of disease when I read it and didn’t recognize it, and that’s what it is.  From Dictionary.com

Scorbutic or scorbutical

adjective, Pathology.
pertaining to, of the nature of, or affected with scurvy.

Word Origin
1645-55; < New Latin scorbūticus, equivalent to Medieval Latin scorbūt (us) scurvy ( Middle Low German scorbûk) + -icus –ic

Well, I do know what scurvy is: a disease acquired from the deficiency of vitamin C.  It was prevalent among sailors who went on long sea voyages and did not supplement their diet with foods rich in the vitamin.  What does a scorbutic person look like?  Well, here is a medical sketch:

It effects the gums and teeth most, and laves the person lethargic and weak.  So why is the taxi driver assumed to have this disease?  First, the taxi driver’s disease echoes and foreshadows the mentally diseased grandson on which the story will hinge.  Second, it shows a society that has been reduced to malnutrition.  And third, it’s a detail that can be projected on to the current state of the British Empire, sickened and debilitated.  It’s a wonderfully placed detail, pregnant with meaning.


  1. Scorbutico is an Italian word meaning peevish, cantankerous, crabby. It originates from Latin. Also from scurvy. Lack of vitamin C (ascorbic acid). So, it is possible that lack of Vitamin C makes you cantankerous. One of the symptons of scurvy is emotional changes and being in a bad mood.

    On the other hand, perhaps the taxi driver was cantankerous because he had not received a good tip. Evelyn Waugh should not have been so mean and could have given him a good tip.

    God bless.

    1. I didn't know about the Italian "scorbutico." Thank you Victor.