The origins of a blatantly curious word
The meaning of the word ‘blatant’ is, one suspects, blatantly obvious. But how it arrived at its modern meaning is not. The word has a curious history within the world of English poetry, and ‘blatant’ took its time to arrive at its modern definition. Its origin is perhaps one of the most curious in all of the English language.
‘Blatant’ is one of those rare words which have a clear and definite origin: it was coined by the English poet Edmund Spenser (c. 1552-1599) in his 1590s epic poem The Faerie Queene, an allegorical work of fantasy which mythologises England (using native myths, such as St George, alongside a sort of Chaucerian English) as a great Christian nation, ruled over by ‘Gloriana’ (i.e. Queen Elizabeth I). In the second part of The Faerie Queene, Spenser writes of Envie and Detraction, two allegorical figures who feature in his poem:
Vnto themselues they gotten had
A monster, which the Blatant beast men call,
A dreadfull feend of gods and men ydrad.
The ‘Blatant beast’ is described as a thousand-tongued monster, the offspring of Cerberus and Chimæra. The Blatant beast, like all of the characters in The Faerie Queene, represents a quality – in this instance, slander or calumny. Where Spenser pulled ‘Blatant’ from, nobody is quite sure, but the OED’s suggestion – that it might be related to the Latin blatīre meaning ‘to babble’ – is pretty persuasive.
‘Blatant beast’ was taken up as a phrase by later writers in the seventeenth century, in reference to Spenser’s monster. It would then acquire numerous related meanings before it eventually settled down into its modern meaning of ‘conspicuous’: first, it was used to describe something or someone clamorous or noisy, as well as bleating or bellowing loudly.
It would not be until the nineteenth century that ‘blatant’ would acquire its modern sense of ‘obvious’, ‘conspicuous’, or ‘obtrusive’: the OED’s earliest citation is from as recent as 1889, in Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Gondoliers: ‘I write letters blatant / On medicines patent.’
And that – blatantly – has been the principal meaning of the word ‘blatant’ ever since. We’ve tamed the beast, but we should not forget that it was Spenser’s thousand tongues that first gave us the word. Its literary origin is something we should celebrate.
Image: Una and the Lion from Spenser’s The Faerie Queene, by Briton Rivière (1840-1920), Wikimedia Commons.