This rather odd phrase is used to indicate that someone has taken some offence at something that has been said or done. I found I used it the other week and immediately wondered what umbrage really meant. Of course, being familiar with Latin I knew that the root of the word was from umbra meaning a shadow but why the association with disgust or distaste?
In the 15th century the word umbrage was used in a way that was faithful to its Latin derivation to indicate shade or shadow. John Lydgate writes in his Pilgrimage of the life of a man of 1426, “my visage whiche is clowded with umbrage”. A little over a century later Sir Thomas Elyot wrote” The sayd trees gave a commodious and pleasant umbrage.”
There is no clear reason why umbrage transformed its meaning from shade to displeasure but there is evidence of that change occurring during the 17th century. In Sir Nathaniel Bent’s 1620 Historie of the council of Trent we find the following phrase, “he … therefore besought them to take away all those words that might give him any umbrage”. There are two things of interest about this usage – firstly, umbrage is clearly associated with annoyance or vexation and secondly, unlike in its modern usage umbrage is used in an active sense rather than a passive, something which is given rather than taken.
It was not until 1680 in Lord Fountainhall’s The decisions of the Lords of Council and Session that we find someone taking umbrage, “The Bishop … took umbrage at his freedom of speech in the pulpit anent the government”. And this is the usage that has remained until this day.
As to why umbrage came to be associated with anger we can only surmise but we talk of moods darkening and perhaps umbrage was a convenient shorthand to reflect this change in demeanour.
I hope you weren’t taken aback – surprised or startled – by this explanation. Aback itself is almost obsolete as a word in its own right but meant backwards, a conflation of two words, namely a and back, in the same way as around is and the equally obsolete adown.
Like many a phrase being taken aback owes its origin to sailing. When the sails of a ship were flat against the masts and spars they were said to be aback. This usage of aback can be traced to the late 17th century. A correspondent in the London Gazette of 1697 wrote, “I braced my topsails aback.” A sudden turn of the wind which resulted in the sailing ship facing unexpectedly into the wind was said to have caused the vessel to have been taken aback. Our phrase was used to describe this phenomenon in the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of 1754 thus, “if they luff up (head towards the wind) they will be taken aback and run the hazard of being dismasted”.
By the early to mid 19th century the phrase was being used figuratively to convey the sense of someone being surprised. Dickens uses it thus in his American Notes of 1842, “I don’t think I was ever so taken aback in my life” although his usage was pre-dated by an article in the Times of 1831 where “Whigs, Tories and Radicals were all taken aback with astonishment…” And so they have remained until this day.
So now we know!