Luke Taylor

Grammar Grater®

with Luke Taylor

Episode 81: A Cumbersome Combo

This week, we're talking about a couple of words that sound alike and as such, can be easily confused: incumbent and recumbent. The words both come from Latin and share a common root in that language.

First, incumbent. This word can be an adjective or a noun. It comes from the Latin word incumbĕre which means "to lie upon, to lean or press upon or to apply oneself to."

The first of the Oxford English Dictionary's definitions of the adjective incumbent is "lies, leans, rests or presses with its weight upon something else." According to the OED, this word first appeared in print in English in 1624. More notably, it was used by John Milton in his epic poem from 1667, Paradise Lost:
With expanded wings he steers his flight aloft,
incumbent on the dusky air.

Along the lines of resting or pressing upon, the word incumbent has specialized scientific uses, particularly in the fields of physics, geology, botany, zoology, ornithology (the study of birds) and entomology (the study of insects).

The word incumbent is also used with the words on or upon to describe something that rests or falls upon a person as a duty or obligation. For example:
As a lawyer, it is incumbent upon me to represent my clients.

The word incumbent can also be used as an adjective or a noun that the Oxford English Dictionary defines as the holder of any office.

According to the Barnhart Dictionary of Etymology, this use of incumbent first appeared in the language in about 1410. It was originally applied only to a person holding a church position, but the general meaning of any officeholder is first recorded in Andrew Marvell's 1672 prose satire, The Rehearsal Transposed. And although the word incumbent can apply to any office holder, it's heard a lot in politics. For example, political news stories often contain sentences like this:
Pat Jones, the incumbent, received more than 180,000 votes.

The word recumbent, meanwhile, comes from the Latin recumbĕre which means "to lie down or recline."

Staying close to its Latin roots, recumbent is an adjective used to describe persons or animals that are lying down or reclining. William Cowper used this sense of the word in his 1794 tale in verse, The Needless Alarm:
The sheep recumbent and the sheep that grazed,
All huddling into phalanx, stood and gazed

Recumbent is also used in archaeology, particularly in the phrase recumbent stone circle, which is a stone circle consisting of a series of large stones lying flat and flanked by two uprights. This most typically applies to a distinctive type of ancient stone circle found in North East Scotland.

In more everyday usage, the word recumbent is used in reference to bicycles. Recumbent bicycles are those bikes where the cyclist sits in a mesh seat and pedals with his or her feet out in front. The handlebars are either situated in front of the rider or tucked underneath the cyclist's seat.

Sources: The Oxford English Dictionary, The Oxford Dictionary of Current English and The Barnhart Dictionary of Etymology.

Music from this episode: "The Sporting Life" by The Decemberists; "Come See About Me" by The Supremes.

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