We’re venturing into the world of the truly rare with this week’s wacky word. It’s obnubilate – to make something less visible or clear, or to obscure.
This is one of those smarty-pants words you might use to show off your Latin skills. (And if you need any evidence of that consider the fact that obnubilate made it into famous lexicographer Eugene Ehrlich’s book, The Highly Selective Thesaurus for the Extraordinarily Literate.) It comes from the Latin word nubes, meaning ‘cloud’. It first came into use in English in the mid-16th century.
The definition of obnubilate doesn’t necessarily suggest a negative connotation but, according to World Wide Words, it was a favourite of 19th century literary critics who used it when they felt “a writer had been less than transparently clear in his exposition”. This comment on author Walt Whitman in the Southern Literary Messenger in 1860 is a perfect example:
“Here is the sample of his obnubilate, incoherent, convulsive, flub-drub*”.
A more famous, modern example comes from Neal Stephenson’s Quicksilver:
This was a wonder all by itself, with its ropewalks … windmills grinding lead and boring gun-barrels, a steam-house, perpetually obnubilated, for bending wood, dozens of smoking and clanging smithys including two mighty ones where anchors were made …
My own search for a more recent use of the word was fruitless. The best I could find was this from a 1996 article in The London Review of Books:
Your main hobbies are embroidery – of mystic shapes and patterns bearing no resemblance to anything in the visible world – and the obsessive cultivation of states of obnubilation, during which ‘strange multicoloured landscapes, stone lions with mutilated heads, and fanciful objects on pedestals’ float before your eyes.
So, as I said, obnubilate really is a word for vocabulary show-offs. But it so beautifully describes obfuscation it probably deserves a more occasional outing. Can you use it in a sentence? Give us your examples in the comments below.
* For its own wackiness, I think flub-drub deserves an explanation here also. Now pronounced flubdub, it means ‘pretentious nonsense or show’.