Don’t expect this language column to be demure

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We’ve written about how adding the simple letter “e” can turn a word into another word with a different vowel sound and how it can change a noun into a verb. May we demurely refer one more time to the wonderful Tom Lehrer song Silent E, or would someone demur?

Yes, “demure” and “demur” are another pair of words that have all but the last letter in common, but really have nothing in common at all.

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(Diversion: For those who arise to object that the verb after “words that” in the previous sentence should be the singular “has” in order to match the singular “pair,” please stand down. The subject of that phrase is “words,” and we are speaking of them as individuals, not a single unit.)

Of those two words, “demur” is the oldest, showing up as a verb around 1230, the Oxford English Dictionary says. Its original, now obsolete meaning was “To linger, tarry, wait,” or, figuratively, “to dwell upon something.” Other obsolete meanings are similar: “To stay, remain, abide”; “To last, endure, continue”; and “To be of doubtful mind.”

So what does “demur” mean? See if you can figure out from these examples, even without first references:

  • “Pressed on whether he would apologize for Sadler’s remark, Bolton demurred. ‘I’ve said what I’m going to say,’ he said.”
  • “The AP reported outgoing Ohio Gov. John Kasich (R) said ‘he will vote for’ Attorney General Mike DeWine (R) over ex-federal consumer watchdog Richard Cordray (D) in the general election, ‘but demurred on how much he will campaign for him.’”
  • “It’s tempting, I know, to demur when your kids or your partner asks what you want for Mother’s Day. Oh, just your company, you guys. Maybe a scone.”
  • “Asked if he had any guidelines in mind, Mr. Pozen demurred. ‘I don’t think I have great answers,’ he said.”
  • “In a powerful moment, a city slicker tries to tell Bill about seeing 30 coyotes (an unlikely number) and when the man offers to shoot the animals for him, Bill sternly demures. ‘I’d just as soon no one go shooting into the herd of cows,’ he says.”
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Time’s up! We’ll bet many of you said that “demur” means “to hesitate to answer,” “to avoid answering,” or something like that.

Except that it’s not supposed to mean that.

Merriam-Webster defines “demur” as “to take exception : object.” Webster’s New World College Dictionary says it means “to hesitate because of one’s doubts or objections; have scruples; object.” Of the examples above, only the misspelled “demures” seems to be an objection. The others are less objection and more coy or hesitant non-answers.

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“To hesitate” all by itself is another obsolete meaning for “demur” in the OED. Maybe it isn’t so obsolete after all, since that is how many journalists seem to be using it.

It should be easier to define “demure” from these examples:

  • “If the design was demure and stayed low around the actual firebox, none of the upper dimension of the room would be noticed.”
  • “The demure Juliet seems at first completely overshadowed by her Nurse, played with great physical comedy and bawdy presence by special guest artist Renée O’Connor.”
  • “‘It’s funny that we think of libraries as quiet, demure places where we are shushed by dusty, bun-wearing, bespectacled women.’”
  • “Perhaps it’s because spring was less flirty this year and demurely played hard to get for all of March and most of April.”

The image in your head might be that of a shy or modest person, perhaps with eyes downcast or eyelids aflutter. That would line up with Merriam-Webster’s definition: “reserved, modest” or “affectedly modest, reserved, or serious : coy.”

The OED says that the original definition, from about 1377, was “Calm, settled, still,” though it lists that usage as obsolete as well. More recently, it defines “demure” as “sober, grave, serious,” or “coy in a way that is not natural to the person.” In other words, not necessarily a shy or reserved person.

It might be good to “demur” to those dictionary definitions and ask, “demurely,” that dictionaries should do more catch up to the way those words are being used.

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Merrill Perlman managed copy desks across the newsroom at The New York Times, where she worked for 25 years. Follow her on Twitter at @meperl.