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How "Egregious" Went from Good to Bad

"Egregious" used to mean "good." Now it means "bad." Find out how a word's meaning could flip so completely.

By
Mignon Fogarty
August 5, 2013

"Grammar Girl, how can the definition of 'egregious' now be the complete opposite of its original meaning? How does that happen? Through gradual acceptance of misuse, such as 'bad' or 'wicked'?" —Reef N Counter (via Facebook)

"Egregious" has an interesting origin and an even more interesting history. 

According to the Oxford English Dictionary (OED), in 1534, "egregious" meant "remarkable, in a good sense"; but by 1573, people were also using it to mean "remarkable, in a bad sense."

The OED speculates that the meaning started to switch because people were using "egregious" (which meant "remarkably good") ironically. Imagine the 16th century equivalent of a hipster mocking a fellow noble:

Indeed, Lord John hath inspired the masses with his egregious plan to collect more taxes.

Some people think that the illogical phrase "I could care less" began the same way. 

The Origin of Egregious

egregious flockSometimes word origins surprise you, and the origin of "egregious" is one that surprised me.

It comes from a Latin word whose root means "flock," as in a flock of birds. The whole Latin word means "standing out from the flock." Originally, "egregious" meant to stand out from the flock in a good way; but now, thanks to our snarky ancestors, it means to stand out from the flock in a bad way.

Related Articles

Could Care Less Versus Couldn't Care Less.

Video: How to Use Quotation Marks (Talks about using quotation marks to indicate sarcasm.)

 

"Egregious" is one of the words in my book 101 Words to Sound Smart

Get the print book at Amazon or Barnes & Noble.

Get the e-book at Amazon, Barnes & Noble, iTunes, or Sundance Bookstore.

Flock image courtesty of Shutterstock.

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