Friday, February 21, 2014

taking umbrage

Don't get me wrong, I know what taking umbrage is--I do it all the time. It means taking offense, getting one's feathers ruffled, stuff like that. But it never occurred to me wonder exactly what umbrage was until just the other day. I'm sure it must be one of those 'from the Latin' sort of words, but pondering it a bit hasn't led me any further than that. So let's take a look.


All of you Latin scholars out there will of course know that this all goes back to the Latin umbra, or shadow. Apparently, the word umbrage appears in English print in the early fifteenth century, but not with its current association. Shadows and shade are not necessarily bad things, right? And so one use of umbrage was to describe the pleasant shade provided by the foliage of trees. The Phrase Finder has quite a few examples of earlier uses of the word, including this quotation from Sir Thomas Elyot, round about 1540:

The sayd trees gaue a commodyous and plesant vmbrage.

It's interesting that the more sinister sense of "shadowy" has pretty much swallowed up the word now. And I'm still not quite sure how it came to have it's precise current meaning. The Phrase Finder tells us that originally one gave umbrage rather than took it and the Online Etymology Dictionary suggests that the meaning is the suspicion that one has been slighted (italics mine). This goes, I think to the more paranoid aspect of taking umbrage. After all, maybe no umbrage was actually intended.

Maybe someone was only trying to offer you a little shade.

* The great rainbow lorikeet picture was taken by Bruce Kerridge and more of his work can be found here,
while the pleasing shade is in a painting by Francis Danby and can be found here.


  1. Love this. I have the slight suspicion that I am a somewhat shady the shadowy recesses of some people's minds...

  2. Thanks, Kathleen. I am pretty sure that your suspicion is unfounded, though.