Supercilious is an interesting word that when used by itself means one thing, but when used in a phrase, such as supercilious government, means something different.
Supercilious describes a person with an arrogant expression, or one who is uppish, contemptuous, lofty or downright snooty.
Note that all these expressions require emphasis by the eyebrows.
A supercilious government is defined as government by eyebrow.
The word eyebrow figures strongly in the use of supercilious because supercilious comes from the Latin supercilium, which has to do with the eyebrow.
Government by eyebrow was established years ago in my neck of the woods, south Alabama, when it was said that probate judges ruled commission meetings with their eyebrows. It may have been that one raised eyebrow signaled “yes,” and two raised eyebrows signaled “no.” No one ever got into the specifics. but there are those who say government by eyebrow worked only for those who were fully in control.
This may sound like a lesson in ancient history, but as late as 1993, government by eyebrow, may have been practiced at the meeting of the Board of Trustees when Terry Bowden was appointed head football coach at Auburn University.
I was not at the meeting, and I don’t know if this tale is true, but it is too good of a story not to tell.
There are those who say that Trustee Bobby Lowder was not in favor of appointing Bowden as coach, but when voting time came the trustees misread Lowder’s eyebrows and voted yes for Bowden instead of the “no” vote that Lowder wanted.
During Bowden’s first season, in which the team went undefeated, the coach could do no wrong, but when the season began to crumble the next year, keen minds noted that all was not well between the board and the coach.
And it did not appear that Bowden understood what was going on.
The president at that time, Dr. William Muse, who was never welcomed into the board’s inner circle sensed what was going on. Dr. Muse called Coach Bowden to his office to warn him, but the coach came into the office talking and kept on talking until the hour was up. Dr. Muse never got the opportunity to warn Coach Bowden.
If I remember correctly, Bowden left half-way through the next year. It was a low moment in Auburn history. But that is the kind of leadership you get from those who practice government by eyebrow.
Over the years I have covered all sorts of meetings across the state. There were times when raised eyebrows got my attention, but I could never determine that anything sneaky was going on.
Nor did I ever ask anyone if they were being supercilious. (I don’t think they would have understood.)
When I was on the journalism faculty I took my reporting classes to cover Auburn City Council meetings, but I never saw anything supercilious.
There was that time, however, during a class discussion with the students the day after council meeting when a male student asked: What does it mean when the mayor (Jan Dempsey} raises both hands in the air, then lets her bracelets fall to her wrists just before she says something?
“It means,” muttered a female student, “that the mayor is in control.”
Gillis Morgan is an associate professor emeritus of journalism at Auburn University and an award-winning columnist. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org