Say what you want about the man, but Winston Churchill knew his way around the English language. His speech was deceptively simple at times, showing that one can still have a rapier wit without resorting to convoluted, obscure structure and vocabulary. Take, for example, some of his more quotable moments:
- Upon being offered the Order of the Garter shortly after his 1954 defeat: “Why should I accept the Order of the Garter from His Majesty when the people have just given me the order of the boot?”
- “A fanatic is one who can’t change his mind and won’t change the subject.”
- “Although always prepared for martyrdom, I preferred that it should be postponed.”
- “During my life I have often had to eat my own words and I have found them a wholesome diet.”
Since I’m not a historian, I’ve often found myself wondering about Churchill’s references, but never about his language, though to be fair, it’s not like I’ve actually read much of his work at all. Nevertheless, it surprised me when I found today’s Word of the Week in yet another Churchill quote:
“The United States is a land of free speech; nowhere is speech freer, not even here where we sedulously cultivate it even it is most repulsive forms.”
There it was: sedulously. It sounds so much like assiduously that I figured they had to be connected somehow. The meaning would certainly fit the context. So I trundled off to get my dictionaries and see what I could make of the words. As it turns out, they are indeed synonyms, but not connected linguistically other than both being derived from Latin.
Sedulous is from the Latin sēdulus, meaning ‘careful + -ous.’ According to the OED Vol. 9, “the Latin word appears to have been evolved from the adverb sēdulō, which means ‘honestly (hence diligently, assiduously).’ The definitions listed are:
- Of persons or agents: diligent, active, constant in application to the matter in hand; assiduous, persistent.
- Of actions: constant, persistent
Assiduous also dates from the mid-16th century and comes from Latin, but from a different root: assidu-us (f. assidē-re to sit by…‘sitting down to’, hence ‘closely applying to’). The OED Vol.1 lists four meanings:
- Of persons or agents: constant in applications to the business at hand, sedulous, unwearyingly diligent.
- Constantly endeavoring to please, obsequiously attentive
- Of actions: unremitting, persistent, constant
- Of things: constant, regular
Besides being exhausted just reading the words ‘unwearyingly diligent’, the thing I noticed the most was the second definition for assiduous. It seems like a good synonym for that definition would be sycophantic – or, more crudely, ass-licking – which made me immediately favor sedulous, and I’ve decided to use it to replace the newly-disgraced assiduous in my vocabulary.
It occurred to me during this whole lexical journey that sedulous is exactly what I’ve not been with my teaching duties for the weeks since Spring Break. It’s right about this time in just about every semester when I would chew my left arm off to have a 10-week semester instead of a 15-week semester. I’ve left behind the novelty of a new schedule, new students, and new tweaks to the syllabus, and I have firmly settled into the cold realization that most of my best effort is falling on deaf ears.
I’ve long been at peace with the fact that no teacher can ever reach all of her students, but as an abstraction, the idea that I can at least get to a few of them seems like sufficient reward for my efforts. After 10 weeks of pushing the same boulder up the same hill, however, it’s no longer an abstraction, but the satisfaction of seeing the few that ‘get it’ is crushed beneath the weight of seeing the many who will probably never know or care what they could have learned.
This is the time of the semester when I trudge and plod through my work. I have little heart to maintain the effort of earlier days, when I labored under the impression that my careful and persistent attention – my sedulity! – would make more of a difference. And it’s still too far away from the home-stretch for me to get my second wind. The best I can do until that happens is try to find little bright spots along the way to carry me around the last bend.