Word of the Day: Impudent

Word of the Day

Impudent: “of, relating to, or characterized by impertinence or effrontery.” “Obsolete: shameless or brazenly immodest” (https://www.dictionary.com/browse/impudent).  

I came across this word while reading “Lilies That Fester,” an essay by C. S. Lewis published in The Twentieth Century in 1955. In this essay, Lewis attacks the cultured class, those people who think they can possess culture by attending cultural events or reading cultural works not because they enjoy those works or events but because they are culture. Of such culture mavens Lewis says, “For many modern exponents of culture seem to me to be ‘impudent’ in the etymological sense; they lack pudor, they have no shyness where men ought to be shy.” So what is that “etymological sense”?

According  to www.etymonline.com, the adjective came into the language in the 14th century: “from Latin impudentem (nominative impudens) “without shame, shameless,” from assimilated form of in- “not, opposite of” (see in- (1)) + pudens “ashamed, modest,” present-participle adjective from pudere “to cause shame” (see pudendum).” But we have to dig a little further to figure out exactly what Lewis is saying.

What I didn’t know before looking up this word is that there is an English word pudendum. I mean, it sounds Latin to me, and it sounds like a Spanish word that I’ve heard on the soccer pitch. So here is what I found under pudendum on etymonline: “’external genitals,’ late 14c. (pudenda), from Latin pudendum (plural pudenda), literally ‘thing to be ashamed of,’ neuter gerundive of pudere ‘make ashamed; be ashamed,’ from PIE root *(s)peud- ‘to punish, repulse.’ Translated into Old English as scamlim (‘shame-limb’); in Middle English also Englished as pudende (early 15c.).” I have to say that especially like the OE word.

In other words, these “impudent” people are waving their shame-limb around in public.

The word also seems appropriate given the recent news about the governor of Virginia, Ralph Northam. In case you haven’t heard, the governor’s medical school yearbook, from 1984, has a page for him that includes a photograph of two young men, one in a KKK hood and gown, and the other in black face, the kind that people wore in the early 20th century in minstrel shows and vaudeville. Yesterday, Northam said that he was not sure which of the men was he in the photograph, but he was very sorry for any harm that he caused.

Today he changed his mind. Today he said that neither of the men on his yearbook page was actually him, though he does remember darkening his skin once for a Michael Jackson dance contest. Here is the account from CNN online:

In a remarkable, hour-long news conference at the Governor’s Mansion in Richmond, Northam defended himself from the cacophony of calls for his resignation, but acknowledged that he had made mistakes on race in his past, like when he darkened his face for the dance contest.

“I believe now and then that I am not either of the people in this photo,” Northam said, denying that he had ever worn a KKK robe and hood or been drunk enough to forget a moment like this. “This was not me in that picture. That was not Ralph Northam.”

The racist photograph, which was obtained by CNN, appears in the 1984 Eastern Virginia Medical School yearbook and shows one person dressed in blackface and another in the KKK’s signature white hood and robes.

Of course, if the photograph is not him, why is it on his page in the yearbook?

Now, don’t get me wrong. I’m not using this space to advocate for Governor Northam to resign. I would even suggest that, if he once had had racist views, he might very well have changed by now. People do change their minds about issues.

No, what troubles (or, to be honest, amuses) me is the way Northam reacted to the revelation of these pictures, first by admitting that he was one of the men in the picture and then by backtracking and trying to deny it. There is, of course, no way to prove that either of the men is indeed the governor, but one doesn’t need to prove it because it seems obvious. And so Governor Northam just looks impudent, waving his scamlim around for everyone to see.

The picture is from the New York Times: https://www.nytimes.com/2019/02/02/us/politics/ralph-northam-virginia-governor.html