• inscrutable •
Pronunciation: in-scrut-ê-bêl • Hear it!
Part of Speech: Adjective
Meaning: Unfathomable, completely unintelligible, impenetrably mysterious.
Notes: Today's word is an ostensibly orphaned negative. Scrutable has been used but in marginal ways that suggest it was 'back-derived' from inscrutable. This adjective should mean "incapable of being scruted" but, of course, it doesn't. The verb with this stem is now scrutinize, and its noun is scrutiny. An investigator, however, was occasionally called a scrutator from the 17th to the 19th centuries, suggesting that such a verb was at least in the back of speakers' minds then. If a scrutator scrutinizes something closely and carefully, he is scrutinous. If he still fails to understand it, it is probably because the object of his investigations is inscrutable.
In Play: Any unsolvable mystery is inscrutable: "There remain many mysteries of the universe that will remain forever inscrutable to us mortals." This suggests that the litmus test for today's Good Word is simply incomprehensibility, a quality found in many locations: "Trying to unscramble the inscrutable motivations of management at this place is not worth the effort."
Word History: Today's Good Word is the standard English rendering of Latin inscrutabilis "inscrutable", an adjective based on in- "not" + scrutari "to examine carefully". This verb is based on the noun scruta "trash". Know why? To trash something in Latin was quite different from trashing things in English. Trashing a room in Latin meant to search it thoroughly, even the trash. Now, Latin scruta came from the same word meaning "to cut" in Proto-Indo-European as Old English scrud "a garment, clothing". This word, as we all know, did not survive the bumpy ride to the present. What was cut off in Roman times went into the trash, but in England remnants were not wasted, so the same root became Old English screade, which today is shred. (Bill Guy sent us today's Good Word for some inscrutable reason, but rather than scrutinize his motives without a shred of evidence to work with, we simply thank him for the suggestion.)