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Word for the Wise December 12, 2006 Broadcast Topic: Popinjay

A fellow of our acquaintance recently damned someone as a popinjay. The fellow then took it back, but not before we took advantage of the opportunity to study up on such an odd imprecation. (来源:老牌的英语学习网站 http://www.EnglishCN.com)

Language commentator Michael Quinion calls popinjay "deeply insulting." He also describes the word as "somewhat dated or literary." We won’t quibble with Quinion about the epithet’s age nor about its literariness; you can find popinjay in the works of Sir Walter Scott, William Shakespeare, and Joseph Conrad.

But "deeply insulting?" Let’s take a look. Popinjay traveled into English from Arabic via Middle French. When it first appeared in English in the early 1500s, popinjay was interchangeable with parrot, which had entered our lexicon around the same time. Parrot lasted as the term for the living and breathing bird, while popinjay was borrowed into heraldry, where it came to name a parrot or parakeet, usually depicted in green with red legs and beak.

Then, just as the attributes of the parrot came to be applied to humans, so that a person who mechanically, sometimes without understanding, repeats the words of others came to be known as a parrot, so too did the characteristics of the popinjay inspire another meaning for that term.

The colorfulness, posturing, and volubility of the parrot and parakeet helped give popinjay its sense that set us off today: "a strutting, supercilious person."

 
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