In a Word: Egregious

April 18, 2011|By John McIntyre, The Baltimore Sun

Each week, The Sun's John McIntyre presents a moderately obscure but evocative word with which you may not be familiar — another brick to add to the wall of your working vocabulary.

This week's word: EGREGIOUS

Language very frequently goes topsy-turvy. In English, we have a number of words that bear opposite meanings, such as cleave, which sometimes means "to stick to" and sometimes "to split apart."

If you look at a dictionary that operates on historical principles, like the Oxford English Dictionary, you'll find that the first definition, the earliest one, for egregious (ee-GREE-jus) is "remarkably good" or "distinguished." It comes, after all, from the Latin egregius, "illustrious," from ex-, "outside," grex, "the flock."

But it would be a mistake to use the word in that sense now, because since the 15th century, egregious has meant "outstandingly bad, "shocking," "notorious." Apparently, people started to use the word ironically, and the reverse sense stuck.

Happens all the time. Nice once meant lewd, which is not nice.

Example: The writer imagined that his prose was lyrical, but it was so egregiously self-indulgent and pretentious that no publication would accept it.

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