Meet the slippery, unpredictable words that can’t be trusted

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Just when you think you know a word, it lets you down. That happened with a word last week: four gracious syllables, a strong look, those classic roots, only for the adjective to slip my grip like quicksilver.

Mercurial, I thought I could trust you. Turns out you’re as deadly as the element, given the rift in my recent poll. Speaker, beware – you’re dealing with treachery, wrapped in a handsome cloak. How sold are you on the semantics, letting mercurial loose in your life?

Nick Kyrgios: can dazzle, can fizzle.Credit: AP Photo/Kirsty Wigglesworth

Online I asked: “Avoiding a dictionary peek, define mercurial. Is it a negative or positive attribute?” Seldom have I met such a duplicitous specimen. To give you the positive sampling, among the 60 responses, synonyms like nimble, imaginative, quick-witted and energetic emerged.

In the negative column, try flighty, insidious, untrustworthy. The Macquarie has a bob each way, offering sprightly as well as volatile as cousins. One respondent went further, deeming mercurial to mean “unpredictable, possibly deranged (see hatter),” a reference to the mercury-mad milliners of yore. Lewis Carroll enshrined the association at his Wonderland tea-party, the hatter nerve-shot by the mercurous nitrate used to cure felt.

Journo Anthony Sharwood suspects the sporting press lent the term its glow. From surfing to football, “mercurial connotes slipperiness and unpredictability in a way that makes good, almost magical things happen.” Combing ABC online, I found Nick Kyrgios, Quade Cooper and the Giants’ Toby Greene all answered to mercurial, players who can dazzle in one game, fizzle the next.

Turning to the gods, Mercury was the gofer of his day, the Roman messenger with winged sandals who yo-yoed between Jupiter and the hordes. His name’s origins lie in mercari – to trade – making the emissary the Deliveroo among deities, reliable on a good day, or equally prone to disaster.

Lustre came later in the guise of the planet, as well as the shimmering metal: dual bodies of mystery and strange powers. The first next-door to the sun, the other like a liquid form of light. Enigmatic, and alluring. Mesmerising, and erratic. Both elements embodied in one element, in the spirit of Janus words.

Janus, to keep with Roman myths, was the two-faced god of transition, the source of January, a month to reflect upon the receding year, and ponder the onset of the new. Janus words, therefore, embrace opposite stances, like the contradiction of oversight, or the confounding yeah-no of sanction. Make up your mind, cleave! Which is it, scan – a brisk or deep look?

Context will tell you, of course. Just as seeded mandarins will only make sense once you put a quadrant in your mouth. Recently, literally has been skunked by misuse, the word as likely to be a metaphor’s emphasis rather than a vouching of actual events. Lucked out, depending on the speaker, can be a tale of woe or woo-hoo.

Sadly, I’ve learnt, we can add mercurial to this brigade. The Collins Dictionary agrees in spirit, suggesting the word runs a spectrum across fickle, thievish, capricious, shrewd and eloquent. Take your pick.

Like the girl with the curl, mercurial can mean divine or flaky. Mighty like Freddie Mercury, or flighty like Freddie Mercury. For years I saw the adjective as a virtue, and perhaps that bias will manifest the more we Pollyanna types fill the glass, but right now, as respondent Linelle Gibson says, evoking the days of Chemistry 101: “It’s a bit all over the place.” Or quoting another participant: “Mercurial (adj.): difficult to define.” Handle with care.

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