ARL Archive · Know Your Words

What Are Vicissitudes?

On tonight’s re-run of The Big Bang Theory (I know … what can I say, I was spacing-out in front of the television), that incorrigible genius Sheldon said something to the effect of, “I’ve realized that my body is too fragile for the vicissitudes of life ….” I forget the rest, but the line is heard in the episode wherein Sheldon attempts to interact with the world as a “virtual presence.” That Sheldon ….

vicissitudes
Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Anyhoo, I’ve been wondering: What the hell is a vicissitude? I confess to having used the word a few times, as I believed the word meant something akin to “the daily grind” or the “wear and tear ” or “rough and tumble” of every day life that can take a toll on a person be it mentally or physically. As it turns out, that isn’t what the word means at all.

Vicissitude, says the Webster’s New World Dictionary of the American Language:

[French; Latin vicissitudo < vicis, a turn, change] 1. (usually plural) changes or variations occurring irregularly in the course of something; especially change of circumstances in life; ups and downs of fortune. 2. regular succession or alternation, as of night and day. 3. change or alternation, as a natural process of life. Synonym see difficulty.

Wow, that seems pretty far off from the way vicissitude is commonly used. (I guess Sheldon doesn’t know everything after all.)

To get a second opinion, and to dig a little deeper into the history of the word, I cracked the covers on the etymological dictionaries. First up was the Oxford Dictionary of Word Histories (ODWH), which traces vicissitude back to the early 17th century and says:

The early word meant ‘alternation’; it is from French, or from Latin vicissitudo, from vicissim ‘by turns,’ from vic- ‘turn, change.’ Current use in the sense of ‘change of circumstances’ usually with an implication of unpleasantness.

Obviously, not much of departure here from the definition offered by Webster’s, but as the close reader will notice, it this excerpt from the ODWH only pertains to the first part of the Webster’s definition. Further, the ODWH does depart from its etymological reference ilk by not saying anything about the word vicar, which I believed to mean something akin to “care-taker” or “property manager.” Turns out I was wrong about that too.

So what’s the connection between vicissitude, meaning change, and vicar? Read on.

Origins: the Short Etymological Dictionary of Modern English (which despite its name is a rather large book), directs the reader looking up vicissitude to “see vicar,” but it doesn’t give one much to go one when he or she does. It merely says the word are connected via the Latin word vic- (which it prints as “uic-“).

The Concise Dictionary of English Etymology also connects vicissitude to vicar, but it goes a step further and links vicar with vicaire, the French word for deputy,  and then Latin uic-, which it says is the Latin (root) word for ‘turn, change, and succession.’

See what just happened there? Suddenly, things that are turning or changing have been paired with things in succession, which is a particular type of change. Now we’ve got the first AND second parts of that Webster’s definition covered. (And maybe the third.)

But wait, there’s more … I think. Although John Ayto’s often contrarian Dictionary of Word Origins also links vicissitude and vicar, it lives up to its reputation by adding something of a wrinkle.

A vicar is etymologically a ‘substitute’ for or a representative of some one else: thus, the pope is the vicar of God on Earth, and the vicar of a parish was originally someone who stood in for the parson or rector. The word comes via Old French vicaire from Latin vicarius ‘substitute, deputy.’ This was the noun use of the adjective vicarius ‘substituting’ (source of English vicarious, which more closely preserves the meaning of the Latin original.) And vicarius, in turn, was derived from vicis ‘change, turn, office,’ source also of English vicissitude and the prefix vice-.

Substitute? Office? [Whaaaa?- Ed.] There’s nothing in that initial Webster’s definition about one person serving as a substitute (or stand-in) for another, particularly in terms of an office or station. I suppose there may be some connection between this notion of a substitute and “changes or variations occurring irregularly in the course of something,” as in, “I came to see the sheriff, but I was passed off to his deputy. Similarly, it’s also possible that a promotion — a positive “change” in the circumstances or an the “up” in the up and down of one’s fortunes — factors in here, but these seem something of a stretch.

What’s not a stretch, however, is that if this definition of vicissitude from Webster’s is right (and the etymology suggests it is), then I think its safe to say that life’s vicissitudes — those “changes or variations occurring irregularly in the course of something” — and their comedic potential, lies at the heart of every Big Bang Theory episode ever made.

I wonder if Sheldon knows that?