Word of the Week: Corpulent


Another way of calling someone fat without them realising? Although be careful with royalty: they are well versed in the slightly more obscure insults. Leigh Hunt was arrested, imprisoned and suffered all the usual fates that prisoners do for calling the Prince Regent “corpulent” in 1812. What offence would it come under, I wonder? Offences Against the Person? Treason? Abusive words?

Because this is the thing with this word, “corpulent”. Is it an insult? Really? Is it a synonym for fat or obese? Or is it something else?

Lets investigate its sound. /ˈkɔpjʊlənt/. Well, that initial /ˈkɔ/ sound is undeniably harsh. It is the echo of the raven’s “caw”: dissonant, aggressive, carrion somehow. It sticks in the back of the throat. A sound which is coughed or vomited out rather than exhaled. And the word is punctuated with the plosive /p/, coupled with grimacing, sneering, snarling /jʊ/. It is not a pleasant sound; wholly appropriate to anti-Royalist phlegm and invective.

And as we look at the word we discern the corpse within the corpulent body: the poor victim of this erudite insult is a dead man walking a rotting carcass of a man swaddled in multitudinous layers of fat and grease! We hear “corpulent” and we understand “morbidly obese”. But again is this fair?

It is undeniable that corpse and corpulent share a root, the Latin corpus. But to my untutored and non-latinate mind, corpus means simply body, our physical, corporeal form. Frail or healthy, male or female, young or old, living or dead, Platonic prison or sensual garden. Just “body”. And -ulentus means nothing more than “full of” or “replete”. Our corpulent gentleman may therefore resemble a powerhouse of a man, a man of complete and powerful body. Could we describe an athlete, a wrestler, a dancer as being fully invested in their bodies and therefore “corpulent”?

Alas, only in my mind. It seems that we poor limited Britons have limited the word to just “fat”. Which still doesn’t exclude the wrestler from its application!


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