Printable Version
Pronunciation: sel-dêm Hear it!

Part of Speech: Adverb

Meaning: Infrequently, rarely, not often, almost never (antonym: often).

Notes: Today we have a word so common we never think of it, though its history is fascinating. This word is seldom used as an adjective in the US and not at all in the rest of the English-speaking world. It is an adverb, so the form seldomly is also uncalled for.

In Play: This word is used to mark the rarity of the action of the verb: "Throughout her acting career, Madeleine Madoff was seldom seen outside the spotlight." Often 'if ever' is attached to this adverb: "Jerry Mander seldom if ever associates himself with an issue that has not already been settled."

Word History: Today's Good Word in Old English was seldum, changed to seldom under the influence of adverbs like whilom. Seldom is a cousin of Dutch zelden, German selten, Danish sjelden, and Swedish sällan—all from ProtoGermanic seldo-. Where seldo- came from is something of a mystery. The best speculation is that it comes from the same Proto-Indo-European word as self, which wandered way off course, no doubt, under the weight of multiple adverbial suffixes. If so, the ultimate origin is a heavily suffixed form of PIE swe-/swo-, the third person PIE reflexive pronoun. We see it in Latin sui "of oneself", Sanskrit svami "one's own (master)", Irish féin "own" (as in Sinn Féin "We Ourselves", the Irish revolutionary political party), Russian svoy "one's own, self", and German selb "self". (Let's all now give David Myer, a very active participant in the Alpha Agora since 2009, an e-bow for suggesting today's very English Good Word.)

Dr. Goodword,

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