'He thought of the half-caste children in Apia. They had an unhealthy look, sallow and pale, and they were odiously precocious'

In my point of view it simply means that the children have so many talents that they seem odious, but that doesn't make any sense and is kind of funny too.

Thank you .

  • Sounds like possibly an example of poor writing. – Robusto Jan 10 at 3:21
  • It’s from a story, The Pool by William Somerset Maugham – Xanne Jan 10 at 3:55

Precocious doesn't mean multi-talented. It means having developed certain abilities or inclinations at an earlier age than is usual or expected. It is often used disparagingly, perhaps because precocious children are often show-offs.

As Odiously means repulsively, "odiously precocious" is extremely critical. It's a surprisingly harsh way to describe children.

It seems there may be a slight divergence in US/UK usage.

Longman Dictionary of Contemporary English says this:

precocious /adjective
a precocious child shows intelligence or skill at a very young age, or behaves in an adult way – sometimes used to show disapproval in British English

and Cambridge Dictionary says:

(especially of children) showing mental development or achievement much earlier than usual:

  • A precocious child, she went to university at the age of 15.

A precocious child behaves as if they are much older than they are:

  • a precocious little brat

The ambivalence is shown clearly at Thesaurus.com where, of the 24 synonyms given, more than half (marked with an asterisk) are disapproving:

bright, *cocky, intelligent, mature, advanced, *aggressive, ahead of time, beforehand, ?bold, *brassy, *cheeky, developed, early, *flip, *flippant, *forward, *fresh, *nervy, premature, *presumptuous, *pushy, quick, *sassy, *smart-alecky

In the UK, it seems to me, 'precocious' is so often followed by 'brat' that even 'precocious child' has become disapproving. But speaking, for example, of someone's precocious talent, or describing someone as a precocious pianist expresses no such disapproval.

  • 1
    @Michael Harvey So have I, and described them in a similar fashion. The passage as a whole seemed to lack humour though. 'Half-caste' is pretty offensive these days. But perhaps it's from an earlier time. Robert Louis Stevenson perhaps, being about Samoa. – Old Brixtonian Mar 15 '20 at 12:46
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    When I was very little, a family story goes, my mother took me to a health clinic to be weighed. The district nurse picked me up and said "What does your mummy call you?". I allegedly replied "Precocious". I hope I was not odiously so. My first words were "I like turkey", apparently delivered at a Christmas meal at what must have been the age of 20 months. This, I can confidently say, is entirely characteristic (I still love food). – Michael Harvey Mar 15 '20 at 13:07
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    @Old Brixtonian it is not always used disparagingly, as the definition in the Oxford dictionary goes it means '(of a child) having developed certain abilities or proclivities at an earlier age than usual' ,it is simply someone who is ahead of their time. – Mumbas11 Mar 15 '20 at 13:30
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    You're right: it isn't always disparaging. Following 'odiously' it is. – Old Brixtonian Mar 15 '20 at 14:05
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    @Mumbas11 The word 'forward' used to be used as a criticism of children who were too self-confident, too uninhibited and asked a lot of impertinent or personal questions. It covered children who were "heard as well as seen" as opposed to those who complied with the Victorian ideal that "children should be seen and not heard". Since 'forward' was being used in this way up to the 1950s at least, I suspect that Maugham was describing a class of children he considered 'forward' to an objectionable degree. – BoldBen Mar 15 '20 at 15:27

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