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The adumbration (sense 1) or shadow of a person on a cobbled street
The coat of arms of Lord Belhaven and Stenton in the Peerage of Scotland bears, in the second and third quarters, a charge of a man’s heart featuring adumbration (sense 2.1) or shadowing
The allegory of the cave, described in Plato’s Republic (c. 375 B.C.E.), demonstrates how human perception is only an adumbration (sense 4) of reality. A prisoner chained for most of his life in a deep cave, and who can see adumbrations or shadows cast on a wall in front of him by objects passing in front of a fire somewhere beyond his sight, will believe that the shadows are reality because he knows nothing else. However, if the prisoner were somehow able to escape from the cave, he would see the fire and, eventually, the sun. Although these represent a higher reality, he would have great difficulty accepting them and would find them incomprehensible.

From Latin adumbrātiō (sketch; outline, silhouette; pretence, semblance) +‎ -ion (suffix indicating a condition or state). Adumbrātiō is derived from adumbrāre (present active infinitive of adumbrō (to represent an object with light and shade, to shade; to represent in outline, to outline, silhouette, sketch; to cast a shadow on, overshadow, shade; to copy, counterfeit, imitate)) + -tiō (suffix forming nouns relating to actions or the results of actions).[1] Adumbrō is derived from ad- (prefix meaning ‘to, towards’) + umbrō (to cast a shadow, to shade; to overshadow) (from umbra (shade; shadow; ghost)).

Sense 2.1 (“(heraldry) outline of a charge”) is modelled after umbration ((heraldry) figure with a faint outline).[1]



adumbration (countable and uncountable, plural adumbrations)

  1. (uncountable) The state of being in shadow or shade; (countable) a shadow.
    Synonyms: shading, shadowing
    • 1755, [François] Fénelon, “Sect. XXX. Of Man.”, in A[bel] Boyer, transl., A Demonstration of the Existence and Attributes of God, Drawn from the Knowledge of Nature. [...] Translated from the French, Glasgow: Printed and sold by R[obert] and A[ndrew] Foulis, OCLC 1103021872, page 62:
      If it be true, that there is a Firſt Being who has drawn or created all the reſt from nothing, man is truly his image; [...]. But an image, is but an image ſtill, and can be but an adumbration or ſhadow of the true perfect Being.
    • 1819, H[ugh] H[enry] Brackenridge, chapter I, in Modern Chivalry: Containing the Adventures of a Captain and Teague O’Regan, His Servant. [], volume II, Pittsburgh, Pa.: Published by R. Patterson & Lambdin; Butler & Lambdin, printers, OCLC 4732483, book I, page 3:
      [O]ne of these, [...] seems to have felt some irritation at the obscurity of certain terms not well understood, being in the Latin, or the Greek language, or derived from thence; so that not being able to get at the root, he could not comprehend the stem of the tree; nor enjoy the adumbration of the branches and foliage.
    • 2005, Christopher John Farley, chapter 7, in Kingston by Starlight: A Novel, New York, N.Y.: Three Rivers Press, Crown Publishing Group, →ISBN, 1st part (Under a Black Flag), page 46:
      And grief from my ma's passing was still with me; such things, like shadows, never leave; they just seem to fade for a time, only to return later. So to the sea I would go, and to New Providence, in a vain attempt to outdistance my own adumbration.
  2. (countable) A faint sketch; a brief representation, an outline.
    • 1631, Francis [Bacon], “II. Century. [Experiments in Consort Touching Exteriour, and Interiour Sounds.]”, in Sylua Syluarum: Or A Naturall Historie. In Ten Centuries. [], 3rd edition, London: [] William Rawley; [p]rinted by J[ohn] H[aviland] for William Lee [], paragraph 186, page 54, OCLC 1044372886:
      There is another Difference of Sounds, which wee call Exteriour, and Interiour. [...] Wee ſhall therefore enumerate them, rather than preciſely diſtinguiſh them; Though (to make ſome Adumbration of that wee meane) the Interiour is rather an Impulſion or Contuſion of the Aire, than an Eliſion or Section of the ſame.
    • 1677, Matthew Hale, “The Fourth Instance of Fact Seeming to Evince the Novity of Mankind, Namely, the Inceptions of the Religions and Deities of the Heathens, and the Deficiency of this Instance”, in The Primitive Origination of Mankind, Considered and Examined According to the Light of Nature, London: Printed by William Godbid, for William Shrowsbery [], OCLC 1029673953, section II, page 166:
      For almoſt in all ſenſible Creatures, eſpecially thoſe of the more perfect kind, a certain Image or weak Adumbration of ſomething like Reaſon appears, yet we find no Creatures below Mankind any thing like Religion, or Veneration of a Deity: [...]
    • 1809, I[ohn] B[ayly] S[ommers] Carwithen, “Discourse III. On the Correspondence of the Brahminical Records, with the Mosaical Account of the Deluge.”, in A View of the Brahminical Religion, in Its Confirmation of the Truth of the Sacred History, and in Its Influence of the Moral Character; [], London: Printed for Cadell and Davies, []; for J[ohn] M[athew] Gutch, []; and for J. Parker, [], published 1810, OCLC 3404958, page 83:
      [V]ague and unsatisfactory would all these evidences appear, if they had not been illustrated and confirmed by that narrative, of which all other records are but faint adumbrations.
    • 1985, William A[nthony] Donohue, “Civil Liberties, Communism, and the State”, in The Politics of the American Civil Liberties Union, New Brunswick, N.J.: Transaction Publishers, published 2009, →ISBN, page 128:
      [Zechariah] Chafee, in his landmark book Freedom of Speech, provided more than an adumbration of civil liberties for future legal scholars—he helped to define the issues and parameters of serious debate on the subject.
    1. (specifically, heraldry) The outline of a charge (image displayed on an escutcheon), sometimes filled in with a darker shade than the field.
      • [1724, N[athan] Bailey, “ADUMBRATION”, in An Universal Etymological English Dictionary: [], 2nd edition, London: Printed for E. Bell, J. Darby, [], OCLC 819943732, column 2:
        ADUMBRATION, [in Heraldry] an abſolute taking away of the Charge or Thing born, ſo that nothing of it remains but the bare Proportion of the out Lines.]
      • 1793, James Dallaway, “Sect. II”, in Inquiries into the Origin and Progress of the Science of Heraldry in England. With Explanatory Observations on Armorial Ensigns, Gloucester, Gloucestershire: Printed by R[obert] Raikes, for T[homas] Cadell, [], OCLC 1008378825, pages 110–111:
        It is ſaid, that ſome [emblazoned shields] bore the outline or tracing only, inſtead of the armorial figures complete; becauſe, having loſt the ſeigniory, they retained only the ſhadow of their property and conſequence. In the ſtate of the practice of delineating coat armour in the fourteenth century, it may be doubted, whether the adumbration of figures could be ſatisfactorily deſigned; and it is therefore to be allowed rather as an imaginary diſtinction, than as implying, what we have no authority to decide upon, that when the patrimonial eſtate was alienated, the poſſeſſor, in every inſtance, made at the ſame time a ceſſion of his hereditary bearing.
      • 1893, James Balfour Paul, “Introduction”, in An Ordinary of Arms Contained in the Public Register of All Arms and Bearings in Scotland, Edinburgh: William Green & Sons, OCLC 4948160, pages xiii–xiv:
        The mysterious adumbration or shadowing which occurs in some of the Hamilton coats, is also interesting, because rare, though it hardly bears out the statement of some writers that it was adopted by families who, having lost their possessions, and consequently being unable to maintain their dignity, chose rather to bear their hereditary arms adumbrated than abandon them altogether.
  3. (countable, uncountable, figuratively) A rough or symbolic representation; a vague indication of what is to come, a foreshadowing.
    • 1669, Thomas Browne; Thomas Keck, annotator, Religio Medici. [], 6th corrected and amended edition, London: Printed by Ja[mes] Cotterel, for Andrew Crook, OCLC 855829560, section 10, page 19:
      [W]here there is an obſcurity too deep for our Reaſon, 'tis good to ſit down with a deſcription, periphraſis, or adumbration; for by acquainting our reaſon how unable it is to diſplay the viſible and obvious effects of nature, it becomes more humble and ſubmiſſive unto the ſubtilties of faith: [...]
    • 1767, Richard Clarke, The Gospel of the Daily-service of the Law, Preached to the Jew and Gentile, in an Explanation of that Grand Ritual, Comprehended in these Six Branches; [], London: Printed and sold by J. Townsend, [], OCLC 191672720, pages 97–98:
      Now, no Prieſt was ſuffered to eat the Fleſh, or drink the Blood, of this Sacrifice, becauſe it was a myſtical Adumbration of a ſpiritual Feaſt above, [...]
    • 1833, Daniel Wilson, “Lecture XXIV. The Sound Interpretation of the Records of Revelation.”, in The Evidences of Christianity: Stated in a Popular and Practical Manner, in a Course of Lectures, Delivered in the Parish Church of St. Mary, Islington. [...] In Two Volumes (Library of Religious Knowledge; VI), volume II (Containing the Lectures on the Internal Evidences), 2nd revised and improved edition, Boston, Mass.: Published by Crocker and Brewster, []; New York, N.Y.: Jonathan Leavitt, [], OCLC 7343224, page 280:
      Human nature soon forgets the infinite grace and power of the Christian redemption, and loses herself amidst the figures and adumbrations of the law, the enactments of the Jewish polity, the directions and rules laid down for the early churches.
    • 1886 May, Thomas Hardy, chapter XIX, in The Mayor of Casterbridge: The Life and Death of a Man of Character. [], volume I, London: Smith, Elder & Co., [], OCLC 881857478, page 242:
      The exaggeration with darkness imparted to the glooms of this region impressed Henchard more than he had expected. The lugubrious harmony of the spot with his domestic situation was too perfect for him, impatient of effects, scenes, and adumbrations.
    • 1969, Vladimir Nabokov, chapter 42, in Ada, or, Ardor: A Family Chronicle, Harmondsworth, London: Penguin Books, published 1970, →ISBN, part 1, page 242:
      The merest adumbration of an apology on Baron Veen's part would clinch the matter with a token of gracious finality.
    • 2004, Fleming Rutledge, “Prologue: The Hobbit”, in The Battle for Middle-Earth: Tolkien’s Divine Design in The Lord of the Rings, Grand Rapids, Mich.; Cambridge, Cambridgeshire: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, →ISBN, page 21:
      He [John Ronald Reuel Tolkien] came to think of his story as a reflection of, or adumbration of, the biblical drama of redemption. In the years following the publication of The Lord of the Rings, his letters disclose an increasingly explicit commitment on his part to the link between his story and the greater Story of which God is the sole Author.
    • 2008, Diana Stirling, “Online Learning in Context”, in Jan Visser and Muriel Visser-Valfrey, editors, Learners in a Changing Learning Landscape: Reflections from a Dialogue on New Roles and Expectations, Dordrecht: Springer Science+Business Media, DOI:10.1007/978-1-4020-8299-3, →ISBN, abstract, page 164:
      It will be argued that the lack of adumbrations in online communication necessitates explicit communication by participants in the process of co-creating meaning and context density.
    • 2014, Walter Brueggemann; William H. Bellinger, Jr., “Psalm 12: To the Leader: According to the Sheminith. A Psalm of David.”, in Psalms (New Cambridge Bible Commentary), New York, N.Y.: Cambridge University Press, →ISBN, page 71:
      [D]ivine presence, direct as it is, is mediated in temple forms, practices, and procedures. Such a guarded Real Presence is an adumbration of the entire struggle of Christian sacramental theology with Real Presence.
  4. (countable, philosophy, specifically phenomenology) The form of an object as seen by an observer.
    • 1983, Edmund Husserl, “Consciousness and Natural Actuality”, in F. Kersten, transl., Ideas Pertaining to a Pure Phenomenology and to a Phenomenological Philosophy: First Book: General Introduction to a Pure Phenomenology, paperback edition, The Hague; Boston, Mass.: Martinus Nijhoff Publishers; Dordrecht: Kluwer Academic Publishers, →ISBN, part 2 (The Considerations Fundamental to Phenomenology), §44 (Merely Phenomenal Being of Something Transcendent, Absolute Being of Something Immanent), page 94:
      Of necessity a physical thing can be given only "one-sidedly;" and that signifies, not just incompletely or imperfectly in some sense or other, but precisely what presentation by adumbrations prescribes.
    • 1991, Christopher Macann, “The Impossibility of a Phenomenological Constitution of the Flux of Inner Time Consciousness”, in Presence and Coincidence: The Transformation of Transcendental into Ontological Phenomenology (Phaenomenologica; 119), Dordrecht: Springer Science+Business Media, DOI:10.1007/978-94-011-3754-6, →ISBN, page 65:
      Just as the intentional horizon of the spatial object is made up of those adumbrations which would be implied were I to walk around the object and view it from different points of view, so the intentional horizon of the temporal object is made up of retentions and protensions.
    • 1995, Herman Philipse, “Transcendental Idealism”, in Barry Smith and David Woodruff Smith, editors, The Cambridge Companion to Husserl, Cambridge, Cambridgeshire: Cambridge University Press, published 1999 (reprint), →ISBN, page 258:
      Obviously, he [Edmund Husserl] assumes that adumbrations exist in consciousness and that they are real parts of the stream of conscious experiences. Otherwise he should have inferred from the thought-experiment of the destruction of the world that in this case consciousness would exist together with a chaotic stream of adumbrations.

Usage notes[edit]

Sense 4 is particularly associated with the work of the German philosopher Edmund Husserl (1859–1938).

Derived terms[edit]

Related terms[edit]



  1. 1.0 1.1 adumbration, n.”, in OED Online Paid subscription required, Oxford, Oxfordshire: Oxford University Press, December 2011.

Further reading[edit]