(From The Wrecker by Robert Louis Stevenson and Lloyd Osbourne, Chapter XIX, published 1892)

Passage 289

The same night I had Nares to dinner. His sunburnt face, his queer and personal strain of talk, recalled days that were scarce over and that seemed already distant. Through the music of the band outside, and the chink and clatter of the dining-room, it seemed to me as if I heard the foaming of the surf and the voices of the sea-birds about Midway Island. The bruises on our hands were not yet healed; and there we sat, waited on by elaborate d-----s, eating pompano and drinking iced champagne.

“Think of our dinners on the Norah, captain, and then oblige me by looking round the room for contrast.”

He took the scene in slowly. “Yes, it is like a dream,” he said: “like as if the d-----s were really about as big as dimes; and a great big scuttle might open up there, and Johnson stick in a great big head and shoulders, and cry, 'Eight bells!'—and the whole thing vanish.”

Collins has this: . . .

  1. ADJECTIVE [usually ADJECTIVE noun] Elaborate clothing or material is made with a lot of detailed artistic designs. He is known for his elaborate costumes. Synonyms: ornate, detailed, involved, complex More Synonyms of elaborate

. . . but it is said of things, not of people.

Even The Imperial Dictionary by John Ogilvie refers to things:

Elaborate (e-lab'o-rat), v.t. pret. & pp. elaborated; ppr. elaborating. [L. elaboro, elaboratum, to work out — e, out, and laboro, to labour, from labor, labour.] 1. To produce with labour.

They in full joy elaborate a sigh. Young.

  1. To improve or refine by successive operations of nature or art; to work out with great care; to work out fully or perfectly; as, the heat of the sun elaborates the juices of plants and renders the fruit more perfect.

These conceptions were not fully nor systematically elaboraled by Berkeley. It is not often that he who quarries the marble carves and polishes the pillar. Scotsman newspaper.

Elaborate (e-lab'o-rat), a. [L. elaboratus, pp. of elaboio. See the verb transitive.] Wrought with labour; finished with great care ; much studied ; executed with exactness; highly finished; as, an elaborate discourse; an elaborate performance.

Drawn to the life in each elaborate page, Waller.

Syn. Laboured, prepared, studied,perfected, high-wrought

Now, what is meant by 'elaborate' in this context? Is there a synonym?

  • The full OED has elaborate (adjective) definition I.1.*= elaborated adj.: see elaborate v. Obsolete.* Obviously he meant elaborately dressed Nov 20, 2023 at 19:16

2 Answers 2


I think elaborate might be glossed there with "characterized by an exaggerated stiffness of movement".

Here's a nearly contemporary (1860) use of elaborate servants in the context of describing military precision:

... Now began the tedious process of dressing which I can well believe if directed by a martinet may be made the means of torture to a regiment. That shuffling backwards and forwards without appearing to move, in that peculiar nondescript gait with which elaborate servants attend at table and theatrical ghosts cross the stage is to me the most odious of all the manœuvres on a field day. In our case it was got over as soon as possible and nothing struck me more than the marked politesse militaire with which the requests rather than commands were made by the army officers attached to each brigade to whom the important task of getting a perfect line was intrusted. [my emphasis]


  • I suspect your cited author (but probably not Stevenson) is mistakenly conflating elaborate and laboured / laborious. Perhaps simply because elaborately-dressed servants are likely to be wearing stiff well-starched clothes / uniforms. Nov 20, 2023 at 19:29
  • @FumbleFingers I don't think it's conflation. The meaning is close to "executed with exactness" cited by OP. There's an exaggerated economy and precision of motion that makes the servant into a kind of droid.
    – TimR
    Nov 20, 2023 at 19:32
  • 1
    Elaborate movement isn't stiff; it's more likely to be flowing and elegant and as if neatly choreographed. Think of an elaborate dance or ritual.
    – Stuart F
    Nov 20, 2023 at 20:19
  • @StuartF Elaborate movement can indeed be stiff. Have you never seen an honor guard? You're bringing a bias to the question.
    – TimR
    Nov 20, 2023 at 21:07
  • 1
    A big upvote since I think this usage is very parallel to the OP's here. But I also don't think that the focus of the word "elaborate" here is the gait, rather that the author is describing a gait peculiar to both actors portraying ghosts and servants who wish to be unobtrusive, and just happens to also be describing such servants as "elaborate." I take it here to mean "fancy, fastidious," or as you suggest "exact." Nov 20, 2023 at 23:17

It should be an easy step for you from the literal definition of elaborate to the figurative meaning, which is elaborately dressed or elaborately behaved.

For this use of elaborate there is no synonym. No single word conveys the authors’ intended meaning, which I’d express as “dressed in fine and meticulous costume and scrupulously comporting themselves with refinement and a proper deference to their social betters.”

  • Thank you, but no - it isn't easy! In fact my question refers to 'elaborate' . That's why I put this question actually. I've changed the question. Is there a synonym?
    – philphil
    Nov 20, 2023 at 18:39
  • 2
    No, I’d say that there is no single word that conveys the authors’ intended meaning, which I’d express as “dressed in fine and meticulous costume and scrupulously comporting themselves with refinement and a proper deference to their social betters.” Nov 20, 2023 at 18:48
  • I brought something similar up on ELU once, but it was not received well. Is that different here on ELL? (In any case, there is no mention of that word in the original question anymore, so you might want to skip the first paragraph altogether :).
    – Joachim
    Nov 21, 2023 at 10:03
  • 1
    @Joachim, done. Thanks for flagging the update to me. Nov 21, 2023 at 11:23

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