penumbra /pə-NUM-bruh/. noun. A half-shadow caused by a partial obstruction of light. In painting, the area where light and shade blend together. Coined by Johannes Kepler from the Latin paene (almost) + umbra (shadow).
The nomination of Brett Kavanaugh for a Supreme Court seat has unexpectedly brought a beautiful word back to popularity, vaulting it into the top 1% of searches in the online Merriam-Webster dictionary (as I write this, it is the 113th most popular word on the site…out of more than half a million).
That word? Penumbra.
But let’s start at the beginning. Penumbra is a “New Latin” (also called Neo-Latin or Modern Latin) word coined in 1604 by astronomer Johannes Kepler. Kepler combined the latin paene (almost) with umbra (shadow) to describe “the partial shadow outside the complete shadow of an eclipse.” Kepler needed a term providing, um, contrast, with the umbra, which was already in use to describe the completely shaded part of a shadow.
Even if you aren’t familiar with the still-current technical use of umbra, you are probably familiar with the more common umbrage, which ultimately derives from it. Most recently adapted from the Middle French ombrage, which also meant “shadow,” the figurative use of umbrage as in taking offense or feeling slighted—most commonly seen in the phrase “to take umbrage” at something—also dates back to the early 1600s.
If you aren’t the type to take, umbrage, or use the word, it’s still hard to escape the penumbra of J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series in which the cruel and constantly offended Dolores Umbridge temporarily holds sway as Defense Against the Dark Arts professor. Rowling’s choice of surname is an obvious play on umbrage but the capricious character’s first name is notable as well, Dolores meaning “sorrow,” which must refer to Umbridge’s spreading of misery but perhaps also a reference to some inner sorrow of her own.
But back to penumbra. Over time, as often happens with scientific terms, penumbra came to be used more figuratively. In art the penumbra is the area of a picture or painting where light and shade blend. More generally the penumbra is often used metaphorically to refer to peripheral ideas in the figural shadow of, and so under the influence of, a larger one. You can hear the broadening use of penumbra over time in some of our best writers.
In 1849, Thomas De Quincey writes in his influential essay “The English Mail-Coach”:
If our dress and bearing sheltered us generally from the suspicion of being “raff” […] we really were such constructively by the place we assumed. If we did not submit to the deep shadow of eclipse, we entered at least the skirts of its penumbra.
Sixty years later, Edith Wharton writes in her short story “The Bolted Door”:
It was becoming necessary to Granice to feel himself an object of pre-occupation, to find himself in another mind. He took a kind of gray penumbral pleasure in riveting McCarrens attention on his case; and to feign the grimaces of moral anguish became a passionately engrossing game.
And finally Sam Vaknin’s 90s story “On the Bus to Town” featuring this brilliant bit of description:
A patrol car arrives a few minutes later and disgorges two policemen. One elderly, stout and stilted, his face a venous spasm. He keeps feeling the worn butt of his undersized revolver. The other cop does the talking. He is lithe, a youth in camouflage, penumbral moustache, anorectic, sinewy hands, his eyes an adulterated cyan. He swells his chest and draws back his bony shoulders, attempting to conceal his meagreness.
While I’d love to attribute the resurgence of penumbra over the last few weeks to some kind of revival of ravishing language, the real facts are both weirdly poetic and remarkably charged. There are observers representing every facet of the many-sided die that is politics who are convinced that the highest stake in the high-stakes game of seating a new Supreme Court justice is the judicial penumbra, particularly the penumbra that has functionally established a right to privacy.
The legal stars started moving into alignment in 1929 when Supreme Court justice Oliver Wendell Holmes wrote:
I am not prepared to say that the penumbra of the Fourth and Fifth Amendments covers the defendant, although I fully agree that Courts are apt to err by sticking too closely to the words of a law where those words import a policy that goes beyond them.
But the change in the firmament was completed in 1965, when Justice William O. Douglas wrote, in an act of sensible justice or grievous overreach, depending on your opinion that:
The foregoing cases suggest that specific guarantees in the Bill of Rights have penumbras, formed by emanations from those guarantees that help give them life and substance.
With this phrase, asserting that rights enumerated in the Bill of Rights—particularly the 4th Amendment against “unreasonable search and seizure”—effectively created further rights as part of their penumbra, Justice Douglas created a broad right to privacy (now sorely tested by state surveillance, social technologies and big data interests) where none previously existed. Douglas insisted, in a restrospectively ironic twist, that marriage was “a right of privacy older than the Bill of Rights — older than our political parties, older than our school system.” and went on to ask:
Would we allow the police to search the sacred precincts of marital bedrooms for telltale signs of the use of contraceptives? The very idea is repulsive to the notions of privacy surrounding the marriage relationship.
So the idea of the legal penumbra—since buttressed by many Supreme Court decisions—was enshrined. While legislation about marriage, particularly same-sex marriage, is part of that penumbra, everyone is becoming a constitutional scholar today because these penumbral “emanations” are at the heart of the reasoning in Roe v. Wade…and it’s hard to find anyone who doesn’t have strong feelings one way or another about that.
And that’s why we find ourselves in a time when NBC News reports that the right to privacy in such cases “does not explicitly appear in the Constitution, but … essentially radiates from the glow (the ‘penumbra’) of its text” and the Wall Street Journal publishes a story with the headline: Trump Blows Away a Penumbra.
The legal penumbra is a beautiful and potentially toxic thing to contemplate. But let me end on a lighter, brighter note.
One of the more enjoyable novels I’ve read in the last few years—perhaps because it is amusing and innocent of any attempted act of high literature—is Robin Sloan’s Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore. Sloan describes it as “a tale of books and technology, cryptography and conspiracy, friendship and love.” To which I’ll add it’s also an adventure, a cracking mystery, and a paean to readers and reading, much of which is set in an “absurdly narrow and dizzyingly tall” bookstore crammed with an array of three-story shelves as formidable and beguiling as a “Transylvanian forest,” at the highest reaches of are found unique, un-Google-able books…books that curious new employee Clay Jannon calls the Waybacklist—and is warned by the peculiar Mr. Penumbra not to “browse, read, or otherwise inspect” when he retrieves them for a bizarre array of customers. I’m sure you can guess what happens next.
But Mr. Davidson’s wit is so brilliant within the circles of its temporary coruscation as to leave the outline of his work in a constant penumbra. Indeed, when he wishes to unburden his mind of an idea, he seems to have less capacity than many men of half his ability to determine the form best suited for conveying it. (Arthur Quiller-Crouch)