What does nugatory mean?

Word count: 283 words

Reading time: Just over 1 minute

Building your vocabulary is always a good idea. It benefits your reading and it also helps you be more specific and precise in your writing. Here is my word of the week.

I was in a coffee shop recently, where I read an interesting newspaper column (in the National Post) about American author, poet and activist Alice Walker. Apparently, the author of The Colour Purple, as forbidding to have a book of hers translated into Hebrew. I no longer remember the reason why and I don’t have enough knowledge to offer any view on the politics of it.

What intrigued me was discovering a term I’d never encountered before. The word? Nugatory. Here is the sentence, written by columnist Barbara Kay in the June 22/12 story:

They represent a nugatory loss in revenues. 

I could guess from the context that nugatory meant negligible, (as in the amount of drink remaining in the photo above.) But why, I wondered, would she have chosen the less familiar adjective? Did it have a specific meaning or insinuation? It turns out the word means: of no real value; trifling; worthless. This is perilously similar to the definition of negligible which means: so small, trifling, or unimportant that it may safely be neglected or disregarded.

Not willing to let go of this, I consulted my etymological dictionary and learned the Latin roots of the word date back to the 1600s and come from  nugatorius meaning “worthless, futile,” which, in turn, came from nugator meaning “jester, trifler.”

My conclusion? The writer was trying to show off and would have been better using the more familiar term negligible.

Photo courtesy Karen Roe, Flickr Creative Commons