Jewish World Review June 24, 2004 / 5 Tamuz, 5764
Editors of Merriam-Webster's Collegiate
'Abnegate' and 'abdicate'; 'feet of clay'; 'difugalty'
The other day I heard a TV commentator speak about a politician who had ``abnegated her responsibilities to her voters'' while in office. I had always thought the word was ``abdicate'' until I discovered that ``abnegate'' and ``abdicate'' are two different words. Is there any real difference between them?
G.O., Tacoma, Wash.
Generally speaking, both ``abdicate'' and ``abnegate'' can be defined as ``to give up; relinquish.'' However, ``abnegate'' can also be used to mean ``deny'' or ``renounce.'' To ``abdicate'' something means to relinquish it formally; the verb is typically used with a position of power as its object. This is why we might speak of a king or queen who has abdicated the throne.
``Abnegate'' is most often used in the context of a less official duty or responsibility instead of an official position or title. A person who has abnegated his or her responsibilities has neglected to attend to them, but no official position is given up as a result. One can also abnegate a right or privilege by voluntarily giving it up, as when a defendant abnegates his or her right to hire an attorney. Additionally, ``abnegate'' can mean to refuse to recognize something, such as a god or belief.
I've never been able to figure out the phrase ``feet of clay.'' Does it mean someone is inept and uncoordinated, or is it similar to the phrase ``cold feet''?
D.B., Newark, N.J.
Neither, actually. ``Cold feet'' means ``apprehension or doubt strong enough to prevent a planned course of action.'' The phrase ``feet of clay'' means ``a flaw of character that is usually not readily apparent.'' It has nothing to do with uncoordination or ineptness, although a person who had clay feet would certainly lack agility.
This is a case where knowing the origin and history of a word or phrase helps in understanding and remembering its meaning.
The phrase ``feet of clay'' comes to us from the book of Daniel. King Nebuchadnezzar dreams of an image having a head of gold, breast and arms of silver, belly and thighs of brass, legs of iron, and feet partly of iron and partly of clay. In the dream, a stone crushes the vulnerable feet causing the statue to fall and crumble. The prophet Daniel interprets this dream as a vision prophesying the collapse of Nebuchadnezzar's empire at the hands of an invincible kingdom created by G-d that will destroy all other kingdoms.
It is from the Biblical story that we get this phrase symbolizing the basic human weaknesses that prevent invincibility and perfection.
I've occasionally heard the word ``difugalty.'' I'm unsure about the spelling, never having found it in any dictionary. (It sound like ``die-FEW-gul-ty.'') I believe it means an anomaly, an inconsistency or something that is not readily explained. What can you tell me about this word, starting with whether it's a real word?
P.E., Huntsville, Ala.
If a necessary condition for being a ``real'' word is entry in a dictionary, then the word about which you inquire is not real. Even the most comprehensive of the dictionaries in our editorial library has no trace of it. In all other respects, however, the word you've come across is certainly ``real,'' although it is not an established part of the vocabulary of standard English.
``Difugalty'' apparently originated as an ignorant or playful mispronunciation of ``difficulty.' It has a long history of use in humorous or jocular speech. Since the term is largely limited to oral use - there is little written evidence - its spelling shows considerable variation, from ``defugalty'' and ``defewgelty'' to ``diffucalty'' and ``diffugalty.'' And since the word has no standard written form, pronunciation also varies, from the example you give to ``dih-FYU-kuhl-tee.'' You are unlikely to see the word anytime soon in any but the most complete dictionaries (or, perhaps, in those recording slang or dialectal use), but ``difugalty'' persists in oral use.
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