In Hamlet’s most famous soliloquy — the one that stars with “To be or not to be…” — the overthinking prince lists a number of problems that make life hard to bear. Most of these are things to which we can relate quite easily: oppression, love that is not returned, the wheels of justice turning too slowly, and people being rude to you.
Most people, though, would read the speech and get to the phrase ‘the proud man’s contumely’ and be completely stumped. It’s not a word one comes across terribly often. In all honesty, it’s probably only literature scholars and high school students studying ‘Hamlet’ that are likely to come across the word, and only one of those groups are likely to know right away what it means.
Contumely is a very old word that means disrespectful, offensive or abusive speech or behaviour.
Contumely is interesting in that most English words that end in -ly are adverbs, which describe verbs, but this is a noun. It doesn’t follow the grammatical pattern of English because it is not originally an English word.
It came into English in the late 14th century from the Old French word contumelie,. That came from the Latin word contumelia, which meant’ reproach’ or insult’, and is related to ‘contumax’ with means ‘haughty’ or ‘insolent’.
These days, we’re far more likely to use terms like ‘insolence’, ‘disrespect’ ‘scorn’ or ‘abuse’ instead.
Still, it could be fun to respond to someone’s arrogance with ‘I do not have to tolerate your contumely’. Hopefully, it would leave them as perplexed as those high school students reading Hamlet’s soliloquy for the first time.
It could also be useful to know that someone behaving with contumely would be described as contumelious.
This word evolved in the 15th century, so it follows the common pattern of the noun form being used first and the adjective coming afterwards. Mr Darcy’s haughty dismissal of Elizabeth Bennet at their first meeting, a lawyer strutting and posturing in the courtroom, or one’s mother-in-law’s disdain for their general existence could all be described as contumelious.
The Proud Man’s Contumely.Tweet
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