Odd Words: Afflatus

Divine Inspiration of Music - AfflatusI am now on page five of The New York Times Everyday Reader’s Dictionary of Misunderstood, Misused, and Mispronounced Words: Revised Edition. Do you know what that means? Word that start with “ae.” And that also means a lot of, “See [word that starts with “e”].

I was struck by the definition of a fairly common word: aesthete. I do know that people very often use it as a pejorative. But I was still struck with this: “a lover of beautiful things, especially to the scornful exclusion of practicalities.” Ouch! Why is it necessary to throw “scornful” in there? It makes aesthetes sound like monsters!

Other Good Words

There were other good words as well. “Advalorem” has something to do with the value of something for the purpose of an import tax. There was also “afferent,” which has something to do with a nerve impulse toward the inside of the body. So maybe when you touch something, the signal moves in an afferent way? I don’t know. And I don’t have to know. It isn’t today’s word!

Today’s word is a great one: afflatus.

Af·fla·tus  noun  \ə-flā’-təs\

1. inspiration; knowledge or understanding. (Note: other sources tend to include the word “divine” in this definition.)

Date: 17th century.

Origin: it comes from the Latin word afflare, which means “to blow or breath on.”

Example: But [Thomas] Wolfe’s temperament was white-hot, his need to digest experience more urgent, and his style of expression too full of the divine afflatus, to the point where his bombastic writing strikes contemporary tastes as almost unreadable.Gerald Howard

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About Frank Moraes

Frank Moraes is a freelance writer and editor online and in print. He is educated as a scientist with a PhD in Atmospheric Physics. He has worked in climate science, remote sensing, throughout the computer industry, and as a college physics instructor. Find out more at About Frank Moraes.

4 thoughts on “Odd Words: Afflatus

  1. Here’s a review of what sounds like an interesting little book about figures of speech.


    “…Forsyth’s chief and admirable ambition is to demolish ‘the bleak and imbecile idea that the aim of writing is to express yourself clearly in plain, simple English using as few words as possible’.”

    Points for leading off with a P. G. Wodehouse quote, plus the review itself contains a small collection of words I’ve never seen (grammatical terminology, so might not count for your purposes).

    • I have a wonderful book, Poplollies and Bellibones: A Celebration of Lost Words. There are different reasons for writing. But the vast majority of people write badly. They write long sentences because they know no better. One can write exquisite long sentences. But it is hard. The same is true of circuitous sentences. As for obscure words: it’s usually a sign of showing off and disregard for the reader. But if one is writing for an audience that loves that kind of stuff, then it is great. But I side with Orwell on such matters: I generally want simple and clear.

  2. Do you find as I do, that you often don’t quite agree with dictionary entries? Seems to me that spirit or genius are better synonyms for afflatus.

    • I do sometimes think dictionary definitions are wrong. Usually it is a matter of how the word is used. But dictionaries are perpetually decades out of date. What surprises me more is how much different dictionaries disagree with each other. And the dictionary that I’m using is rather bad. But that’s part of the fun of it.

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