What does ‘spavined’ 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: spavined….

When I read a Calvin Tomkins story about artist Dana Schutz in the New Yorker, I was thrilled to see it gave me three fascinating words. Here is Tomkins’ text:

Large and medium-sized canvases in varying stages of completion covered most of the wall space in the studio, a long, windowless room that was once an auto-body shop, and the floor was a  palimpsest of rags, used paper palettes, brushed, metal buts filled with defunct tubes of Old Holland oil paint, colored pencils and broken charcoal sticks, can of solvent, spavined art books, pages torn from magazines, bundled work clothes stiff with paint, paper towels, a prelapsarian boom box, empty Roach Motel cartons, and other debris.

One of the wordspalimpsest — I have addressed earlier. (It means a manuscript page from a scroll or book from which the text has been scraped off so the page can be used again. The term is often used metaphorically meaning something having diverse layers beneath the surface.)

The word that most interests me today, however, is the adjective spavined. In my mind’s eye, I imagined it to mean “splayed,” with a broken spine and dog-eared pages. Turns out, I wasn’t far off the mark. The word means “old and decrepit” or “over-the-hill.” The etymology of the word is fascinating, however. The noun spavin refers to a disease of the hock joint (found in the hind leg, between the knee and fetlock) of a horse. It comes from the Middle French espavain but many sources speculate its true origin is from the Old English/Germanic word sparwan, meaning “sparrow.” Why? It seems that horses affected with spavin move with a walk that reminds people of the bird’s awkward gait.

Finally, the word prelapsarian means, “characteristic of or belonging to the time or state before the fall of humankind.”

An earlier version of this post first appeared on my blog on Nov. 15/17.

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