Merriam-Webster has turned around a little bit lately, I suppose, because they now have a definition for “overweening” that doesn’t just refer you to the entry of “presumptuous” (I don’t want referrals, I want to stop moving: define). And so they should. Let’s take some time with this.
Why am I gung-ho about this ridiculous word? It’s a little piece of history: to ween in Old and Middle English meant to suppose, think or believe. It’s in Chaucer. Coleridge uses it, although I think it’s probably dialectal at that point. It preserves the (weened) Indo-European root *wen-, that is, to wish, desire, strive for. Go look up that in an etymology dictionary (I’ll do it for you: here) Look at how many ideas that opens up!
Well, anyway, I know, it’s a lot, but it’s probably one of the only words approximately related to “presumptuous” that, well, isn’t from a French or Latin source (think: arrogant, immoderate, presumptuous, excessive). It gives us variety in choosing words. It opens up the conversation. It’s a bit of diversity. And with that, diversity the magic key in most things these days, it gives us freedom to explore and exert. And it’s not something that ridiculous (really, dictionary.com, I don’t care that the word of the day is “collywobbles,” give me something I can use!).
Now, the trick is, how to use this word. Since it’s not that common, I wouldn’t just roll up to someone and say, “I think he’s a bit overweening.” Unless you better be prepared to justify why you’re putting the stress on this word your friend doesn’t know and will probably laugh at (too fast, too soon). Better, like:
“To put it gently, she was offended by his self-assured attitude and overweening remarks.”
“His biggest vice was his overweening pride.”
“Alex’s overweening ambition made him difficult to work with.”
Okay, maybe it’s a little literary sounding, but it’s still golden. Go forth and spread the good word.