What does ‘quondam’ 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: quondam….

I always enjoy stumbling across words I’ve never before seen. Part of me is always astonished, because I read so much and so widely. On some level I figure I’d have run across all the words in existence by now. (Well, except for a panoply of scientific terms.)

But writer Geoffrey Wolff, author of the collection of essays, A Day at the Beach: Recollections, gave me a new one recently: quondam. When I saw it I felt as though I was reading a foreign language. (Probably Latin, I guessed.) Here is how Wolff used it:

My dad and I had a problem, for we owned between us a single set of license plates, and these had belonged to yet another car, my quondam stepmother’s.

At least I was right about the Latin. The word, which means “one-time, former,” dates back to the 1580s. It comes from the Latin quondam meaning “formerly, at some time, at one time; once in a while,” from quommeaning “when, as.” The word is described as formal and its use has declined dramatically over the last 200 years.

I don’t understand why Wolff chose to employ it here. It doesn’t add much to the sentence except to add an air of formality to his former stepmother. Is that what he was trying to achieve?

An earlier version of this post first appeared on my blog on April 25/18.

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