What does ‘saturnine’ mean?

Reading time: Less than one 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: saturnine…

I chose to read John Lahr’s profile of the actress Viola Davis (pictured above) — in the Dec. 19 & 26/16 New Yorker —  because I think she’s an interesting actress who tackles challenging roles. I particularly liked her in The Help, and even in the slightly cheesy TV show, How to Get Away with Murder. But the profile revealed a lot more than information about acting. Davis not only faced systemic racism, she also grew up in abject poverty. The article is very moving in the way it describes how she  overcame these obstacles with grace and determination.

The article also gave me my word of the week, saturnine. Here is how Lahr used it:

In 1995, as Vera, the sometime girlfriend of a smooth-talking forties musician, in [August] Wilson’s Seven Guitars Davis was alternately shy, sassy, and saturnine.

The adjective means slow and gloomy or dark in coloring and moody or mysterious. The etymology of the word, which dates back to the mid-15th century, means “born under the influence of the planet Saturn,” from the Middle English word Saturne. Medieval physiology believed these characteristics to be caused by the astrological influence of the planet Saturn, which — in the limited knowledge of the day — was the most remote from the Sun  and therefore coldest and slowest in its revolution.