What does ‘etiolated’ mean?

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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: etiolated….

I encounter a word, every once in a while, that I’m sure I must know. It sounds familiar and yet, when I read it in a sentence, I can’t figure out its meaning.

This happened to me recently with the Alison Wearing memoir Moments of Glad Grace, in which the author and her father go on a genealogical trip to Ireland.  The word is: etiolated. Here’s how Wearing used it:

The entire staircase is lined with portraits of dour, etiolated priests.

At first I thought of the French word for stars, les étoiles and wondered if that perhaps could be the root. But it just didn’t make sense. So I looked it up and learned the word means to be pale and drawn out due to a lack of light. The photo at the top of this post displays a young, pale-faced girl with an etiolated appearance.

The word is most frequently used by biologists or horticulturalists to refer to plants. Etiolation is most commonly found indoor plants, where some are forced to grow in poorly lit conditions.  But it also occurs in gardens and outdoor plants if they’re grown under a tree or otherwise blocked from sunlight.

On the other hand, deliberate etiolation can also produce certain varieties of plants that are expensive and considered highly desirable. White celery and white asparagus — which are given no access to light — fall into this category.

The root of the word is, in fact, French. It comes from the past participle of étioler meaning “to blanch” (17c.), perhaps literally “to become like straw,” from Norman dialect étule, meaning  “a stalk.”

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