Printable Version
Pronunciation: sen-ten-chês Hear it!

Part of Speech: Adjective

Meaning: 1. Terse, tidy, like a maxim or aphorism, as 'to speak in sententious phrases'. 2. Pompous, full of aphorisms and maxims, as in 'sententious moralizing'.

Notes: Today's Good Word is the adjective for the noun sentence. However, it is a 'contranym', a word that contains two contrary meanings, neither having much to do with the meaning of sentence: short and pithy or pompous and bloviated, to use another Good Word. Sententiousness is the noun and sententiously, the adverb. Remember that the CE in sentence becomes TI before the suffix -ous in the adjective.

In Play: Reporters in the electronic media are always looking for a sound bite from interviewees that is sententious in the positive sense, e.g. "We have the best Congress money can buy in Washington." Sententious speech in the second sense need not be wordy, just arrogant: "The very fact that he used few words and short sentences made his little speech sententious, as though he were talking down to us." The best places to look for sententiousness today are universities and the journals they publish: "His article was terribly sententious, full of 'he-who's', fatuous maxims, and the like."

Word History: Today's word is the adjective of a Latin noun, sententia "an opinion, judgment, an expressed sentiment", the original meaning of sentence. A sentence was an expressed opinion, especially a judicial opinion. However, already in the 17th century, a sentence tended to be limited to a decision on punishment, the only judicial sense it has today. Along the way, the sense of "opinion, sentiment" also drifted into the sense of "the words expressing an opinion or sentiment". This is how the two contemporary meanings split from a single one long ago.

Dr. Goodword,

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