The good, the bad, and the egregious

Recently, we discussed words in the Oxford English Dictionary that mention novelist Nevil Shute. His first published novel, Marazan, from 1926, follows the first-person adventures of Philip Stenning, a former World War I pilot who crashes his plane and is rescued by an escaped prisoner, who asks Stenning to help clear him of a frame set up by his Italian half-brother. (We didn’t say it was a good novel.)

At one point, Stenning is in Italy, where he is treated like royalty as he is introduced to an official. “He bowed to me as I came up, and asked if His Excellency would have the egregious kindness to display his passport.”

You’re probably wondering why we’re telling you all this. If so, go back and read the quoted sentence. Doesn’t that usage of “egregious” seems strange?

We usually think of “egregious” as something bad. Not just bad, but as Merriam-Webster says, “conspicuously bad: flagrant.”

ICYMI: Dead and spun: a story in three meetings

Obviously, that official is not asking Stenning for a “conspicuously bad” kindness. Instead, he seems to lay it on rather thick to be sure his request is not offending. In this case, “egregious” is good. 

Sign up for CJR's daily email

“Egregious” is not quite a “bizarro” word, used as opposite to its traditional meanings, like saying something is “bad” when you mean it’s “good.” It’s more like a Janus word, which has two opposite meanings, like “sanction.” “Egregious” could be good or bad, depending on the context.

The first appearance of “egregious” in English was around 1550, the OED says. M-W says: “Egregious derives from the Latin word egregius, meaning ‘distinguished’ or ‘eminent.’ In its earliest English uses, egregious was a compliment to someone who had a remarkably good quality that placed him or her eminently above others.”

This usage of “egregious” is what landed Shute in the OED for the first time. (Aha, there’s the connection!) The passage from Marazan is one citation for this positive use of “egregious.” In that entry, Shute is in such esteemed company as Hobbes and Thackeray (and also Field & Stream magazine).

But egregius was also used sarcastically in Latin, and in about 1566, the OED said, “egregious” was being used, “Apparently arising as an ironic use,” to mean “Conspicuously bad or wrong; blatant, flagrant.” Later, the OED says, it gained the meanings of “outrageous, offensive.”

That’s how we mostly see it used today. Hillary Clinton said that impeachment is included in the Constitution to protect against “a leader whose behavior would be so egregious, so threatening to the republic, that there had to be a remedy.” A judge cited a man’s “egregious wildlife crimes” and sentenced him for a murder-for-hire scheme. The license of a bar in a Chicago suburb was suspended for three days for the “egregious violation” of selling alcohol to minors.

It’s rare to find a positive use of “egregious” today. Indeed, the chances are if someone today used “egregious” in a context similar to the way Shute did, readers might interpret it as a “fulsome” request, one that was abundant or copious in its kindness.

Except, as longtime readers might know, to some people “fulsome” means “abundant,” while to others it means “disgusting or offensive.” So one person’s “egregious kindness” could be another person’s “fulsome kindness.” And it could mean a good thing, or bad.

So be sure not to “Shute” yourself in the foot by not providing a clear context.

FROM THE MAGAZINE: Building a More Honest Internet

Has America ever needed a media watchdog more than now? Help us by joining CJR today.

Merrill Perlman managed copy desks across the newsroom at the New York Times, where she worked for twenty-five years. Follow her on Twitter at @meperl.