Contumacious - contumelious

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Contumacious and contumelious are two adjectives with similar sound patterns and spellings which are close in meaning - but should still be distinguished by careful writers. Both express disapproval of the writer towards the people or ideas about which they are used.

  • Contumacious is sometimes spelled with a '-t-', contumatious. Either spelling - contumacious is preferable, on etymological grounds - is pronounced 'cont-you-MASHE-us', IPA: /,kɒn tjʊ 'meɪ ʃəs/). The word is formed from the noun contumacy ('cont-YOU-mess-y' /kɒn 'tju: mə sɪ/), which means 'wilful disobedience', 'rebelliousness', 'a stubborn refusal to do as one is told'. So the adjective means 'rebellious', 'disobedient', 'stubborn', 'perverse'. 'To be put in contumacy' is an old legal term meaning that the judge is treating the behaviour as contempt of (or wilful disobedience to the) court.
Etymological note: the words contumacy and contumacious are derived from the Latin adjective contumax, meaning 'insolent', 'obstinate' and in a legal context 'refusing to obey a summons to appear in court'. The root is debatable: some believe it to come from the root of tumēre ('to swell'), others from that of tem-n-ĕre ('to despise'), which gives us contempt.
  • Contumelious is pronounced 'cont-you-MEEL-i-us', /,kɒn tjʊ 'mi: lɪ əs/. It is formed from the noun contumely (pronounced with either three or, more commonly, four syllables 'cont-YOUM-ly' or 'cont-YOU-mill-y' /kɒn 'tjʊ mɪ lɪ/), which means 'scornful rudeness', 'contempt', 'insulting language'. So contumelious means 'scornful', 'insulting' or 'insolent'. There is a strong implication that a contumelious speaker is someone who is trying to cast doubt on the honour or integrity of the opponents in question; to disgrace them, or to shame them.
Etymological note: OED can only suggest that contumely and contumelious are "probably cognate with contumax [as above] ... in which the stem part tum- is of disputed etymology". That two such words as contumelious and contumacious, which AWE, on behalf of the traditional academic community, is trying to keep apart and distinct from each other, should share an origin in the remote past is one of the curiosities of etymology.
Both these words express the writer's disapproval. They can appear as a doublet, but good writers are clear that the first means 'setting oneself against authority', and the second means 'scornful' or 'rude'. It is perfectly possible for both to apply in the same situation, as has been known in wilful schoolchildren.