What’s a ‘scion’?

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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: scion….

If you’d asked me if I understood the meaning of the term scion, I would have said yes. But I would never have been able to remember it enough to use it in a sentence myself.

I’ve read it hundreds of times over the last 20 years and I encountered it again recently in the novel Outline by Rachel Cusk. Here is how she used the word:

He, the scion of playboys and millionaires, would finally observe the penal servitude of a nine-to-five: he sold his house in Athens, bought a small flat in an upmarket part of the English capital, and took the boat out of the water.

As I figured out (again) via context, a scion is a descendent. But when I investigated the etymology of the word, as well as its fuller meaning, I learned some finer points about the noun.

First, its primary meaning is a young shoot or twig of a plant, especially one cut for grafting or rooting. This usage dates back to  1300, and comes from Old French sion, or cion meaning “descendant; shoot, twig; offspring.”  Interestingly, the Oxford English Dictionary makes a point of rejecting the idea it is derived from the Old French scier meaning  “to saw.”

The figurative use of the word, employed by Rachel Cusk and meaning “a descendant,” dates back to from 1814, and is said to come from the image of a “family tree.”

An earlier version of this post first appeared on my blog on Aug. 14/19.

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