Language Corner

Trump’s use of the word ‘sanctimonious’ astonishes Twitter users

March 19, 2018
Image by Gage Skidmore, via Flickr

When Andrew McCabe was fired as deputy FBI director just days before he would have retired, President Trump tweeted his exultation:

Immediately, the Twittersphere wondered whether the tweet was actually written by Trump. After all, this is a president who misspells words so frequently that the errors themselves become news.

ICYMI: One of Facebook’s “biggest ever data breaches” exposed in new report

Sign up for CJR's daily email

Somewhat surprisingly, the word “sanctimonious” did not spike on Merriam-Webster, though it was in the top 1 percent of lookups over the weekend.

It had spiked, under President Obama, who in 2010 called Democrats “sanctimonious” for refusing to compromise on a tax cut.

As M-W says, “sanctimonious” means “hypocritically pious or devout,” or pretending that you’re “holier than thou.”

“Sanctimonious” has at its root the Latin “sanctus,” for “holy” or “blessed.” And for a time, that’s what “sanctimonious” meant as well. The Oxford English Dictionary says that “sanctimony” came first, about 1541, to mean “holiness of life and character.” But apparently there was a little too much unctuous “sanctimony,” because by 1618 “sanctimony” was being used to describe “pretended, affected or hypocritical holiness or saintliness.”

The same happened with “sanctimonious,” which first appeared in English around 1604, the OED says, but almost immediately threw off the mantle of holiness. The opposing meanings coexisted for some time: Shakespeare used it in Measure for Measure (possibly written in 1604) to describe a hypocritical pirate (and National Geographic credits him for the coinage), then he called marriage vows “sanctimonious” non-ironically in The Tempest,  believed to have been written in 1611.

Imagine having to figure out whether someone who said you were “sanctimonious” was insulting you or praising you.

Luckily, since Shakespeare’s time “sanctimonious” has lost its “blessed” meaning, and is always said with the linguistic equivalent of a sneer. And though “sanctimonious” no longer has anything to do with religion, most dictionary definitions still include “piety” or “religious hypocrisy” in their definitions. The American Heritage Dictionary leaves the church out of it entirely, defining “sanctimonious” as: “Righteousness accompanied by an unwarranted attitude of moral or social superiority; smug or hypocritical righteousness.”

“Sanctus” is the holiest of holies for many other words, ranging from “sanctified” from about 1465 to plain, ordinary “sanct” in 1890. Nearly all refer only to the purity of religion or piety, though “sancta simplicitas,” the OED says, means “An expression of astonishment at another’s naïvety.”

Then there is “sanction,” another “sanctus” spawn, which has its own contextual problems. As we wrote in 2008, “sanction” can indicate punishment or approval. The United States has imposed “sanctions” against Iran, Russia, and North Korea, among others, for bad behavior. Yet Olympics sports are “sanctioned” by international federations. So we had the odd juxtaposition of athletes from “sanctioned” (negative) nations competing in “sanctioned” (positive) sports.

It’s enough to make one want to seek “sanctuary” in an inner “sanctum.”

ICYMI: Have you noticed a misspelling all over social media? You’re not alone.

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