Word Well Used

Word Well Used: 'Torpid'

Courtesy of writer Emily Ogden

Welcome to Word Well Used, a series dedicated to highlighting recent achievements in wordsmithery and verbal elegance. Basically, we're featuring word uses that we really like.

This week we are looking at a tweet from writer Emily Ogden, in which the word torpid is wielded with a droll panache. 

What is 'torpid'?

Torpid may be defined in a small range of ways, including “sluggish in functioning or acting,” “numb,” “exhibiting or characterized by torpor,” or “lacking in energy or vigor.” The word has been in use since the 15th century, with the initial meaning of “numb.”

For those who like to impress their co-workers by waxing etymologic when talking about vocabulary around the office water cooler (or while waiting for a virtual meeting to start) torpid came to us from the similarly formed word in Middle English (in which it carried the meaning of “inattentive, lazy”). For those who like to confuse and possibly bore their co-workers either in person or online, Middle English borrowed the word from the Latin torpidus (meaning “number, paralyzed”), which itself is an adjective derivative corresponding to the stative verb torpēre (“to be numb, lack sensation, be struck motionless, be sluggish or lethargic”). And for those who would seek to alienate and annoy these co-workers (and if we are honest with ourselves, isn’t this why we are all here?), this stative verb can be traced to the dialectal Indo-European *tr̥p-eh2-.

Her sleeping head with its great gelid mass
of serpents torpidly astir
burned into the mirroring shield—
a scathing image dire
as hated truth the mind accepts at last
and festers on.
— Robert Hayden, Angle Of Ascent: New and Selected Poems, 1975


Love words? Need even more definitions?

Subscribe to America's largest dictionary and get thousands more definitions and advanced search—ad free!