Triple Ex-

The prefix ex- can signify, among other things, “from” (think excerpt); “outside of” (exurban); “utterly” or “utmost” (extreme); and “former” (ex-president) – the reason ex- words seem to run on forever in the dictionary. Missing are those that have fallen from use but should interest wordfolk and weekend linguists – and three such words are shown here.


In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, eximious was just another way to say excellent, distinguished, or eminent. In 1547, physician Andrew Boorde wrote (in the yet-to-be-standardized spelling of the time), “Kynges [kings] and kynges sones [sons], and other noble men hath ben eximious Phisicions.”

The word fell from use over time but found favor with satirists who put it to use in humorously bombastic passages. One was author Thomas Carlyle, who in 1865 penned, “O, ye wigs, and eximious wigblocks,* called right-honourable.”

*A metaphorical insult to the pedantic and pompous


Bodily purges were a springtime ritual for the middle and upper classes of the nineteenth century, and an exipotic was a purging agent – what we now call a laxative. The word probably bounced off the walls at wellness retreats like that of Dr. John Harvey Kellogg in Battle Creek, Michigan. With his brother Will, the good doctor invented cornflakes, but he had less interest in breakfast cereals than in the exipotics and yogurt enemas he used to cleanse patients. (He also abstained from sex and never consummated his 40-year marriage – a private matter we choose not to enter.)

In case you wonder whether Ex-Lax, a popular over-the-counter laxative since 1906, took its name from exipotic, it did not; the brand name is shorthand for “excellent laxative.”


If we have an everyday verb for “put in” – insert, whose first recorded use was 1529  – shouldn’t we have an antonym meaning “pull out?” In time, we did. Exsert made its debut in the mid-nineteenth century but was no match for extract, which had served the same purpose for four centuries or more. When used as a verb, exsert gradually went intransitive and came to mean protrude or thrust out.

The word had more success in its adjective form – exserted (“extended”; “held out”; “stretched forth”) and eventually found a place in writings by botanists and horticulturists. Charles Darwin wrote in his Life and Letters (1887), “While examining some pollen on a damp surface, I saw the tubes exserted.” Today, horticulturists apply exserted to plants – for instance, to stamens long enough to protrude beyond a flower’s petals.

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