What does ‘demersal’ mean?

Reading time: Less than 1 minute

Increase your vocabulary and you’ll make your writing much more precise. That’s why I provide a word of the week. Today’s word: demersal…

When I read Casey Cep’s marvellous non-fiction bookFurious Hours: Murder, Fraud and the Last Trial of Harper Lee — I learned about voodoo, racial politics in the American South, writer’s block and several new words.

One of those new words was demersal. Here is how Cep used it:

These were dark, demersal years, when white voters were pandered to by politicians at every level of government, promised power they’d never had at the expense of African Americans they were assured never would.

I’d never before seen the word and when I looked it up was surprised to learn it referred to fish — specifically, ones living close to the floor of the sea or a lake.

Cep, of course, is using it in metaphorical fashion, meaning that the politics of time covered by her book (1970s Alabama) were so low that citizens may as well have been residing at the bottom of the ocean.

The etymology of the term is Latin from demergere meaning to submerge or sink. First known use dates back to 1889 and usage appeared to peak in 1987 (it’s currently back down to 1964 levels.) Makes me feel better for not having been familiar with the word!