What does desultory mean?

Reading time: About 1.5 minutes

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: desultory.

Whenever I read I like to record words that either tickle my fancy or that I don’t yet know on a first-name basis. (I use the notes section in my iPhone for this. This is because it’s usually close at hand and because it keeps the notes together in one place.) Desultory is one of those words. I’ve recorded it dozens of times over the years and yet I’ve never been able to retain its meaning.

I encountered it most recently in the fine novel Look at Me by Jennifer Egan. Here is the sentence in which it appeared:

And yet the boredom and stasis of my present circumstances were driving me to retrospect in the desultory way that a person cooped up in an old house will eventually make her way to the attic and upend a few boxes. 

Perhaps it’s the multitude of definitions that has outfoxed me. ( I find if I can’t create a picture in my mind’s eye then my memory just won’t cooperate!) Desultory means:

1. Something marked by lack of definite plan, regularity, or purpose
2. Something done without serious effort.
3. Something not connected with the main subject
4. Something that is disappointing in progress, performance, or quality — as in a desultory fifth place finish.
I often find that learning the etymology of a word helps me to remember its meaning. The adjective dates back to the 1580s and comes from the Latin desultorius meaning “hasty, casual, superficial.” This word, in turn, comes from the noun desultor referring to a rider in the circus who jumps from one horse to another while they are in gallop.
Surely the image of a circus rider on a horse will give me enough of a visual image to jog my memory about the meaning of desultory in future. 
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