What does ‘rebarbative’ 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: rebarbative….

I’m still reading the book Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman (pictured above) and I can tell you already that it’s one of the funniest, most charming pieces of fiction I’ve read in years.

The story of an unusual heroine whose utter strangeness and discomfort in the world — and her unconscious wit — make her irresistible, has already been optioned by Reese Witherspoon. (In the spirit of Eleanor Oliphant, I feel obliged to tell you that Reese Witherspoon is a well-known actress and producer. Eleanor would not know this.)

That the book is the first novel by Honeyman is a marvel to me. The voice is so assured and confident. And Honeyman has also given me my word of the week, rebarbative. Here is how she used it:

“I did briefly consider taking up smoking,” I admitted, “but I thoroughly research all activities before commencement and smoking did not in the end seem to be to be a viable or sensible pastime. It’s financially rebarbative too,” I said.

The word, which means “repellent,” or “unattractive,” dates back to the nineteenth century and, interestingly,  comes from a French word rébarbatif, from barbe, meaning  “beard.”

I was initially puzzled that a beard (which I often find rather handsome) would earn a reputation for being “repellent” but the Merriam-Webster dictionary explained the issue rather neatly: Beards can be prickly and scratchy. Another descendant of Latin barba is the English word barb, which can refer to a sharp projection (as found on barbed wire) or a biting critical remark, both of which can discourage others from getting too close.

An earlier version of this post first appeared on my blog on Dec. 6/17.

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