"That's a great deal to make one word mean," Alice said in a thoughtful tone. "When I make a word do a lot of work like that," said Humpty Dumpty, "I always pay it extra."

Tuesday, 25 November 2008


In the latest Sharpe book that I've been reading I came across the word gnomic.
"...his Sergeant rolled his eyes at the Brigadier's display of ignorance. 'She's a Nantes barrel, sir,' Pelletieu added in gnomic explanation as he patted the howitzer." (Pelletieu was responding to a suggestion that a bigger charge be used and indicating it could not be because of the age of the gun and it’s fragility.)

Assuming it wasn't the use of gnomic in it's sense of 'relating to or containing gnomes' I looked it up. The first definition I found left me as baffled as before:- “In Ancient Greek, a general truth may be expressed in the present, future, or aorist tenses. This usage of these three tenses is called the gnomic (gnomic present, etc.). “ Was this just a long-winded way of saying that gnomic meant expressing a general truth?

A further definition helped – “Mysterious and often incomprehensible yet seemingly wise”. This was obviously how Cornwell was using it.

For the curious, the aorist tense is one to be found in certain languages, including classical Greek and Sanskrit, which espresses action (especially past action) without indicating its completion or continuation.


  1. One I knew for the simple reason that I have listened to John Marshall using it as an everyday expression for the last 33 years.

  2. That's because John is mysterious and often incomorehensible yet seemingly wise! If he was very small he'd be really gnomic.