I was translating the book of Judith from the Vulgate this morning (for class; if it were for fun, I’d be translating something more interesting, like Martial or Ælfric Bata), when I ran across this in Judith 4:8:

Et humiliaverunt animas suas in jejuniis et orationibus.
(And they humbled their spirits in fasting and prayers.)

In Latin, Jejunium, or jejunus in its adjectival form, means “fasting, hunger.” This got me wondering what was the connection between the Latin word and the modern English word jejune, meaning “wanting in substance, unsatisfying, thin, insipid,” and which is now used primarily in connection to writing or speech.

The connection is pretty obvious once you think about it. And sure enough, the Oxford English Dictionary says that jejune is a seventeenth-century borrowing from the Latin, and one of the first uses of the word in English, from before 1619, is in the sense of fasting or hunger. This sense disappeared in the eighteenth century.

But the word quickly gained the metaphorical sense of “hungry for intellectual sustenance, thin, insipid.” We have an adverbial use from 1615 in Edward Hoby’s A Curry-combe for a Coxe-combe:

The Knight saw how Ieiunely his Aduersary pleaded for Purgatory.

The adjective has also gained a sense of “puerile, juvenile, naïve.” This sense arose in the late-nineteenth century and is probably the result of confusion with the French jeune or “young.” We have this from Shaw’s 1898 play Arms and the Man:

His jejune credulity as to the absolute value of his concepts.

My assumption had always been that jejune was a more recent borrowing from French and connected with youth, rather than hunger. It just goes to show you that one’s hunches, even those based on long experience in a field, are very often wrong.

Works Cited

“jejune, adj.” “jejunely, adv.” Oxford English Dictionary Online. 2nd ed. Oxford University Press, 1989. Web. 17 Feb. 2011. 

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