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The dictionary.com definitions seem to overlap almost completely.

tumid

adjective

  1. swollen, or affected with swelling, as a part of the body.

  2. pompous or inflated, as language; turgid; bombastic.

  3. seeming to swell; bulging.

turgid

adjective

  1. swollen; distended; tumid.

  2. inflated, overblown, or pompous; bombastic: turgid language.

tumescent

adjective

  1. swelling; slightly tumid.

  2. exhibiting or affected with many ideas or emotions; teeming.

  3. pompous and pretentious, especially in the use of language; bombastic.

The only differences I inferred from the definitions are that when it comes to literally swelling, tumescent might refer to a less extreme case than the other two, and that tumescent might be possible to use with a neutral or positive connotation. But these are both speculation on my part.

What I would like to know is:

  1. Is my above speculation correct?

  2. If I were referring to literal swelling, what are the different connotations of the words (e.g. in the sentence "His foot was [blank] enough to be alarming.")?

  3. If I am referring to bombastic language, what are the different connotations (e.g. in the sentence "The arrogant professor's [blank] lecture left us feeling annoyed.")?

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    Tumescent is more likely in literal/medical contexts, so tumescent organ (usually, erect phallus) gets a lot of hits in Google Books. Turgid is more likely as a figurative usage, so whereas tumescent language gets only 6 hits there are 1930 for turgid language. Tumid is hardly used any more, so you can probably safely ignore it. – FumbleFingers Aug 12 '16 at 12:50
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    I've only ever associated tumescent with an erection (i.e. literal usage) and turgid with boringly pretentious (i.e. metaphoric usage), so it comes as a surprise to learn they're used in the alternative senses. Never heard of tumid. – Chappo Hasn't Forgotten Monica Aug 12 '16 at 12:58
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    @njc: Thus it would be more sensible to say your [blank] foot is swollen unless you've got some special reason for wanting to make people think of erections by calling it tumescent. – FumbleFingers Aug 12 '16 at 13:18
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    The "sc" in the middle of Latinate words typically indicates a changing state, e.g., tumescent, fluorescent, condescend, convalescing, adolescent, effervescent, resuscitation, emasculate, etc. (Note this doesn't apply to prefixes that make the letter combination by happenstance, e.g., discombobulate, disconnect, etc.; to compound words where the "sc" was at the beginning, e.g., kaleidoscope, subscribe; or to words from Greek or other languages, e.g., proboscis.) – metal Aug 12 '16 at 13:24
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    @metal That's fascinating! Now I'm just sitting here thinking of more examples: evanescent, pubescent... – njc Aug 12 '16 at 13:32
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Tumid and turgid appear to be very similar in meaning both etymologically and in modern usage, but to my ears and by association with tumor, tumid carries a more negative, serious connotation, while turgid is a swelling but not necessarily diseased in itself. As @Nate notes in the comments, turgid is used positively in biology. (These are my impressions. Take them cum grano salis.)

Etymologically, tumid meant "morbidly swollen", i.e., swollen because of disease, and is cognate to tumor. Turgid also meant "to swell" and originated in medical contexts. The Latin roots of these words (tumere, turgere) also marks them as being very close in meaning if not synonymous in many contexts, with tumere appearing to be more common in classical Latin.

Tumescent is also cognate with tumid. The "sc" in the middle of Latinate words typically indicates a changing state, e.g., fluorescent, condescend, convalescing, adolescent, effervescent, emasculate, etc. (Note this doesn't apply to prefixes that make the letter combination by happenstance, e.g., discombobulate, disconnect, misconstrue, resuscitation, etc.; to compound words where the "sc" was at the beginning of one of the pieces, e.g., kaleidoscope, subscribe; or to words from Greek or other languages, e.g., proboscis.) Here it makes the meaning progressive rather than tumid's static sense: swelling rather than swelled.

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  • That makes sense. It seems like it's probably a safe bet to use turgid over tumid, given how rare the latter has become, but I really like that distinction. – njc Aug 12 '16 at 13:49
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    Plant stalks are usually healthiest when turgid, in the sense that they are firm and full of water. The distinctions between swollen (bad state), swollen (no comment on state) and swelling are lost in these definitions. Not sure where to look to find an authoritative definition that explains this, though. – The Nate Aug 12 '16 at 15:48
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    Also, in spite of your etymology for tumid, it commonly appears as an entirely neutral description that just means bulging or protruding. "... which is a short black line the under mandible is white at the base the other half blue and both mandibles have a tumid marginal orange line at their base inside which in the under mandible only is a line of black orbits chesnut." - The Quarterly Journal, Volume 9, Birds of the Genus Pteroglossus, 1820. It can be used to describe any feature that appears more swollen than in the prototype species. – Phil Sweet Jun 16 '18 at 16:14
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    Another example - "The tumid appearance of the muzzle remarkable in the living walrus then as is easily seen upon the development of the alveoli for the of the roots of the tusks." - The New Pictorial and Illustrated Family Magazine, Volume 3, The Walrus, 1846. And one more - "The long neck, small head, prominent eyes and tumid and cleft upper lip with considerable prehensile power are common to both genera but with much similarity of form as well as of particular characters the camelidm of the Andes ..." Library of Universal Knowledge: A Reprint of the Last (1880 ..., Volume 3). – Phil Sweet Jun 16 '18 at 16:24
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Tumescence connotes being filled with water in a good way as in your example the penis fills with blood becomes tumescent and achieves an erection which is its function.

Turgor can also be a good thing it is what keeps plants erect. Without enough water plants would wilt. With turgor they stand erect and grow towards the Sun.

Tumid also means swollen but is always pathologic. For example bloated dead fish would be tumid. A distended abdomen of appendicitis would be tumid. This patient is at risk of death.

So if I were using these terms that were originally medical and scientific and wanting to apply them to someone's manner of personal expression or writing I would do this:

I would use tumescent to describe a temporary overflow of pride that someone uses to bluff their way through a temporary situation. Like athletes before a game.

I would use turgor to describe someone who is always overdoing it, but not necessarily in an evil way. For example Muhammad Ali bragging all the time about what a great boxer he is. Sure it was prideful but it worked for him and it didn't hurt anybody.

I would use tumid to describe an over expression that has become pathologic and will soon result in the demise of the person or civilization. For example the fall of the Roman Empire. Or the idiocy of a dictator eg Hitler.

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  • Hello, Elaine. This may well be a very worthwhile answer, but to be a good one on ELU, it needs supporting evidence. Answers lacking such come across as (and have been known to be) no more than opinion, which may be poorly informed. – Edwin Ashworth Jun 16 '18 at 11:50

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