Nugatory - a, 1. Trifling; vain; futile; insignificant.
2. Of no force; inoperative; ineffectual
This word seems to be used most in legal contexts, using the second definition. As in, laws are nugatory because enforcement of them is problematic or impossible. What's interesting, though, is that the etymology of the word has nothing to do with legalities. See here:
c. 1600, from L. nugatorius "worthless, futile," from nugator "jester, trifler," from nugatus, pp. of nugari "to trifle," from nugae "jokes, jests, trifles," of unknown origin.
I had never associated trifling with joking before, but apparently they're related words. Or, rather, they were related words at some point. Today, trifling means unimportant and joking means to poke fun. How those two things connect, I'm not sure. At some point, though, trifle was equivalent to jest and joke.
Regardless of how the meaning of those words diverged from each other, nugatory is akin to the trivial trifle, not the joking jest. Nugatory is also a word that was favored by one our country's best-known military men: George Washington. A man named Jared Sparks complied and published a collection of Washington's private and official communications in The Writings of George Washington. Here are some of the ways Washington used today's word:
"If we have no occasion for troops for the first purposes, and were certain of not wanting any for the second, then all the expense, of every nature and kind whatsoever on this score, would be equally nugatory and unjustifiable."
"In a word, the confederation appears to me to be little more than a shadow without the substance, and Congress a nugatory body, their ordinances being little attended to."
"It seems almost nugatory to dispute about the best mode of dealing with the Algerines, when we have neither money to buy their friendship, nor the means of punishing them for their depredations upon our people and trade."
"One of the reasons against it is a fear, that all the States will not be represented. As some of them appear to have been unwillingly drawn into the measure, their delegates will come with such fetters as will embarrass and perhaps render nugatory the whole proceeding."
Washington wasn't the only American general to use this word. U.S. Grant did as well, though not nearly as much. In closing one of his letters, which I found from The Memoirs of Three Civil War Generals, Vol. I: Ulysses S. Grant, he says this -
"Regretting that all my efforts for alleviating the sufferings of wounded men left upon the battle-field have been rendered nugatory, I remain, &c.,
Between the two of them, I think Washington and Grant provide us a solid idea of how this word can be used with its different meanings. And now it's my turn to use it.
"I felt like one of the rats the were skittering around my feet - desperate and disgusting. I looked back. There was only fog in the alley behind me. I pulled the neck of my coat up and tugged my hat farther down. I passed 317 on my left, kicking something metal as I went by. The clatter was like thunder in my ears.
I reached 321. The two was upside down. I looked back. Still, only the fog had followed me. I knocked. The door opened. There was a table with a dirty oil lamp on it and one chair, but no man.
"Won't you come in, my good sir?"
My insides jumped at the voice. It was like velvet, or silk, but with a sinister thread. I tried to still my heart as I stepped inside.
"Please, take the chair."
I wanted nothing better than to face the darkness that hid that voice. Instead, I took four deliberate steps and sat down.
"With whom do I speak?" I asked.
A laugh sounded from the shadows, deep and rich. "I must offer my apologies, lady," he said. "For mistaking you for a gentleman."
"I shall gladly accept your apologies, should you reveal yourself," I said.
"Well then, I'm afraid I must remain an unforgiven wretch."
"A wretch you may very well be, but I am not concerned with the state of your existence. That is nugatory to me. You have something I need. I should like to procure it. Now, if you please."
I heard him move. One step toward me.
"Nugatory? Indeed." Another step. "I did not think you so unkind." His voice morphed then, from velvet to diamond. "I am no trifle, madam, nor is my existence an insignificant thing. If you value your life, and the life you wish to save, remember that."