Jaded: a word for our times

"jaded" close up from dictionary“Jaded” didn’t always mean what it means today. It’s a centuries-old word that has adapted to fit our media-saturated, sensory-overloaded culture. But as John Steinbeck and Kathleen Norris demonstrate below, you can describe the concept without using the word.

I like etymologies (a word’s history). On my bookshelf I have an enormous 1913 edition of Webster’s New International Dictionary, the definitive work of its day for American English. It’s new enough to include etymologies, and old enough to demonstrate them through its obsolescence. (It has “aeroplane,” for example, but not “airplane.”)

According to this edition, jade is a fourteenth-century word that originally referred to a broken down, worthless or vicious horse, and could also refer to a disreputable woman. The etymology traced it to Scottish and Icelandic words for mare.

Jade definition 1913People have been verbing nouns for as long as there have been verbs and nouns, and by at least 1598, jade was also a verb that meant to wear out by overwork or abuse.

"jade" from 1913 Webster's

The 1913 dictionary includes a quotation related to mental weariness, but the word still hadn’t fully acquired its present meaning. [UPDATE: But see my comment below.]

Next I checked a 1983 Merriam-Webster’s Ninth Collegiate Dictionary. To the word jaded (adj.), it adds the idea of being “dulled by surfeit or excess,” which is getting close but perhaps not quite there. Finally a 1994 Roget’s Thesaurus defines it as “exhausted” or “indifferent” and suggests synonyms such as “been around,” “blah,” “done it all,” “satiated,” “sick of,” “wearied,” and “worn out.”

There it is. The sense we all know and are thoroughly bored with.

The word has come a long way from horses, and its evolution makes sense. Most of us no longer need many words for describing horses, but we do need a word describing the state of jadedness. (Do other languages have words with equivalent meanings? Presumably they’d have very different etymologies.)

My copy of Travels with Charley.

My old copy of Travels with Charley.

“The eye never has enough of seeing,” says the writer of Ecclesiastes, but in a sense it does. John Steinbeck describes the sensation in his 1962 book Travels with Charley. Many miles into his cross-country road trip across the United States, he writes:

I was driving myself, pounding out the miles because I was no longer hearing or seeing. I had passed my limit of taking in or, like a man who goes on stuffing in food after he is filled, I felt helpless to assimilate what was fed in through my eyes. Each hill looked like the one just passed. I have felt this way in the Prado in Madrid after looking at a hundred paintings — the stuffed and helpless inability to see more.

Back cover of Travels with Charley

Charley and Steinbeck. The book’s back cover.

A few pages later Steinbeck imagines his dog Charley asking him, “What makes you so moony?”

“It’s because I’ve stopped seeing. When that happens you think you’ll never see again.”

I said before on this blog that I love the Internet and love that information is so much more easily available than it was when I was growing up. But there’s a downside. Today the visual and auditory and informational meal never stops. Course after course arrives and the guests sit idly at the table picking indifferently at their food. No one has a chance to get really hungry.

Here is the antithesis: The poet Kathleen Norris moved from New York City to a small town in western South Dakota. In 1993 she published Dakota, a book of essays that became a surprise bestseller. In a chapter titled “Deserts” she writes,

The silence of the Plains, this great unpeopled landscape of earth and sky, is much like the silence one finds in a monastery, an unfathomable silence that has the power to re-form you… I am conscious of carrying a Plains silence with me into cities, and of carrying my city experiences back to the Plains so that they may be absorbed again back into silence, the fruitful silence that produces poems and essays.

Of course it isn’t necessary to move to a rural area to experience what Norris is talking about, which is creating times of silence for oneself, times when you shut off all that input. The level of satiation ebbs, the jadedness fades, and gradually you start hearing and seeing and comprehending again. Norris’s word-picture is a powerful one, this idea of carrying silence into the city and the city back into the silence. Norris meant it literally — it’s how she lives her life — but she’s also a poet so it’s easy to find a beautiful metaphor in her words, the secret to unjadedness, if there is such a word.

11 thoughts on “Jaded: a word for our times

      1. thecuriouspeople Post author

        And it turns out that, according to Etymonline, “jaded” as an adjective meaning “bored by continual indulgence” entered the language by the 1630s, much earlier than I had thought!

        Using Google Books, I then checked several old dictionaries: Thomas Sheridan’s A General Dictionary of the English Language (1780); Francis Grose’s A Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue (1788); the 1836 edition of [Samuel] Johnson’s Dictionary; a few editions of Noah Webster’s dictionary, and the 1919 edition of the Concise Oxford English Dictionary… but didn’t find the modern adjective listed in any of them. (Google Books is great: the above sounds like a lot of research but I spent maybe ten minutes.)

        This was puzzling, but then I realized I could use the Advanced Search screen in Google Books to search for “jaded” occurring in books published within a given range of years. I selected 1600-1800. Most of the results seemed to use the word in the sense of being worn out or harassed. But Volume 3 of A Poetical Translation of the Works of Horace by Philip Francis (1750), included the line, “A jaded Drinker’s languid Appetite” (p. 217), which certainly expresses the sense of satiation. I imagine I’d find more examples if I kept looking.

        So it would have been more accurate for me to say that the modern usage has been around for centuries, though apparently it remained relatively uncommon until more recent times.

        What a fun way to study words! Full-text searchability isn’t new, but I’m continually amazed at what a powerful tool it is. And I’m bookmarking Etymonline.

  1. Pingback: Words, Wisdom, and a New Way of Looking at a Familiar Thing | Conversations

  2. Donna

    Crazy… I am an old woman. I have bourne and raised six children (grown now) mostly as a single mom and currently have fourteen grandchildren. I’ve had an interesting hard life, father deceased when I was 2, mother deceased when I was 9. Needless to say, I didn’t have $ for jewelry. I am a single 67 year old professional now and since a recent “splurge” on jewelry, I found that my favorite purchase was the jade earrings and bracelet that I bought. I have them on today and when no one commented on them, I found myself saying (to myself) “that’s okay because I love them”. Somehow it then dawned on me that there is a word “jaded”…hmm…what does that word mean and why does it have my favorite gem in it? I don’t know if you answered my question (not that it matters because I still love jade) but this was a very interesting read. Maybe I was lead here because of where I am in life – recently I have been “jaded” about having to work, when I feel I should be able to retire now – I’m used-up in this world of professionals and feel ready to join a creative world at home – where I always thought I should be. Whoops, what? This isn’t my journal, help me. LOL. Thank you.

    1. thecuriouspeople Post author

      Thanks for your comment! Yes the word for the stone is a homonym, but I never knew its origin till now. According to Merriam-Webster, “jade” the stone is: “French, from obsolete Spanish (piedra de la) ijada, literally, loin stone, ultimately from Latin ilia, plural, flanks; from the belief that jade cures renal colic.”


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