- Paul Anthony Jones
(n.) someone who opposes change, reform, or enlightenment
An offuscant is an enemy to enlightenment—quite literally as it turns out.
That’s a word that popped up on the HH Twitter yesterday (and judging by the response it received seems to have proved especially apropos of current events).
Which is somewhat ironic given that this word is several centuries old, and has barely been used for the past 200 years.
The Oxford English Dictionary traces the word offuscant back to 1799, when the English writer William Taylor used it in an article in London’s Monthy Review magazine, commenting on the memoirs of the French Revolutionary figure and Mirabeau (aka Honoré Gabriel Riqueti). Mirabeau was opposed to what he saw as a dangerous and secret anti-Christian undercurrent of esotericism, mysticism and philosophy in Revolutionary France, driven by the likes of alchemists, cabalists and Illuminés (members of the Illuminati). In opposition to them, in Mirabeau’s world, were the offuscants—or the “teachers of vulgar credulity” in Taylor’s words.
The word offuscant derives from a French word, obfusquer, literally meaning ‘to shade’ or ‘to cast shadow’. (English has adopted the words obfusk and obfuscation from the same root.) In its native French, offuscant seems to date back to the 1600s, if not a little earlier; at its root is fuscus, a Latin word meaning ‘dark’ or ‘dim’ (from which English has also adopted the word subfusc, meaning ‘having subdued colours’).
So while an Illuminé seeks to enlighten the world, an offuscant quite literally seeks to darken it. This word, however, remains squarely in the shadows: the OED has no record of it since a second essay by Taylor dated 1806 (in which the offuscants were labelled, “not reasoners, but mystics”), and it’s proved difficult to find any reference to it in the years since. In a world of mumpsimuses, however, perhaps this is another word long overdue a revival.