How fitting that I set to tasting this word just after reading a brief article on obscure quaint imported liquors and the ever-so-arcane-and-cute cocktails one may make with them. This word is a Sazerac served on the marble counter of your prose – or a brooklyn cocktail made with coyly copied Picon, or an old-style martini: two parts gin, one part dry vermouth, half a part sweet vermouth, and a dash of Angostura. It is a sometime word for “sometime”, an erstwhile or whilom usage for “erstwhile” or “whilom”, a former way of saying “former”.
Never mind why we have all those words that denote pretty much the same thing. Listen, I have six bottles of different kinds of Scotch in my liquor cabinet. I have three different kinds of gin in various places around the suite (freezer, cabinet). I have five kinds of rum, four kinds of brandy; for heaven’s sake, I have two kinds of cachaça. Some people even keep several different kinds of vodka. For much the same reason, I see no issue with keeping sometime, erstwhile, whilom, former, and quondam in the lexis cabinet.
Each one has its own sounds, of course, with their associations: two have the grey whiskers of whil, of which one has the Teutonic greying temples of erst and the other smokes the meerschaum of om; one is a common word elevated to pretension by the docking of an s from the tail; one is really quite common; and then there is the one with that quirky-yet-recondite pure Latin qu formation. Quondam. It smacks of Gregorian chant, and yet it also rather sounds like a Brooklyn prophylactic, doesn’t it? Add to that the clowns and acrobats of Quidam, at least for those who like Cirque du Soleil.
These several words, like all words, are also known by the company they keep. Quondam, perhaps more even than any of the others in the set (with the possible exception of whilom), sets a particular tone, a register, an air; it tells you something about the person using the word. If the user is male, you may reasonably expect that he owns real bowties and knows how to tie them, and can tell the difference between a tuxedo (black tie) and tails (white tie) and knows when to wear each. A woman who uses this word is surely not an utter stranger to elbow-length white silk gloves, nor to the arched eyebrow and arch comment – delivered not over tea or even juleps but something a little stronger, if you don’t mind, and another after that.
Roberto De Vido has drawn my attention to its use in a letter (quoted in The New Yorker) by none other than the great New York acid wit of round table and reviews, Alexander Woollcott:
To me you are no longer a faithless friend. To me you are dead. Hoping and believing I will soon be the same, I remain
Your quondam crony,
There’s a shot of bitters for you! But the words live on.
Indeed, anyone who uses it now may be assumed to be aspiring or pretending to a status of erudite wit, whatever their topic. It may even be used for contrast, as in this quote from a 2006 National Post article: “The future of ‘Hart House’, quondam home of the first family of professional wrestling, was secured by a new development plan.”
Ah, yes. House. That’s actually a less common usage. One further detail is that quondam is used more often of people. One not so often will hear of “my quondam domicile”; much more likely “my quondam domestic partner.” It was in its oldest English usages (and still is, occasionally) a noun meaning “former holder of an office or position” (as the OED says). It can also be an adverb, which is what it was in Latin – meaning “formerly”, of course.
Well, enough for this evening. The weekend awaits. As does a bedtime cocktail… with, let us say, Cointreau and Zuidam gin? Ah, I’ve finished the latter (sometime since, in fact). Well, there’s my quondam cocktail, then: Cointreau and – damn, I’ll have to use the Magellan gin. And a little whisper of Becherovka, for the requisite bitters.