Language Corner

Out of ‘spite’

December 21, 2020

Language Corner aims to inform and entertain, and often discusses words and phrases in the news.

Donald Trump insists he won the presidential election, despite mountains of evidence to the contrary.

Donald Trump insists he won the presidential election, in spite of mountains of evidence to the contrary.

Do you read both sentences the same way?

“Despite” and “in spite of” are both prepositions meaning the same thing: in fact, Merriam-Webster’s definition of “despite” is “in spite of.”

The blog for Grammarly, a grammar-checking software, is absolute on the differences between them: “The easy answer: none. Despite and in spite of, despite what you may have heard, work identically in a sentence.” The Grammarist blog says so, too. Even Grammar Girl says, “ ‘In spite of’ and ‘despite’ mean the same thing and are interchangeable.” And the Associated Press Stylebook entry for “in spite of” says, simply: “Despite means the same thing and is shorter.”

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And yet.

“In spite of” has a slightly more defiant connotation: not just “notwithstanding,” another synonym, but with malice or contempt.

At the root of both is the word “spite,” which came into English as a noun around 1330, the Oxford English Dictionary says. Its first meaning was “Action arising from, or displaying, hostile or malignant feeling; outrage, injury, harm; insult, reproach.” Its second meaning, dating to the same time, was “A strong feeling of (contempt,) hatred or ill-will; intense grudge or desire to injure; rancorous or envious malice.” The phrase “in spite of” first appeared about two hundred years later, to mean “defiance (scorn or contempt) of; in the face of; notwithstanding.”

“Despite” as a noun is slightly older, appearing around 1290, the OED says, in the phrase “in despite of.” Not unexpectedly, that meant “In contempt or scorn of; in contemptuous defiance of.” The single-word preposition “despite” appeared around 1602, meaning, the OED says, er, “in spite of.”

Leaving the word “spite” on its own intensifies the malice. “She played despite her injury” implies she shrugged it off and played on regardless; “She played in spite of her injury” conjures more of an image of her thumbing her nose at the injury.

“Despite” has since lost some of its bite. It is frequently used to mean “nonetheless” or “however,” both of which imply simple contrariness, not rancor.

Of “despite” and “in spite of,” Garner’s Modern English Usage says: “The two are almost always interchangeable. The compactness of despite recommends it, and it has greatly predominated in AmE and BrE print sources since the early 1950s.”

“In spite of” started falling out of favor around 1940, when “despite” passed it in frequency of use in books, according to this Google Ngram.

Despite all that, and in spite of our usual admonition to use shorter words or phrases when you can, “in spite of” can be a handy tool when you want to show a sense of angry defiance.

“In spite of” is frequently followed by “the fact that…,” which paints that lily into verbosity. For example, “It’s an ideal many find irresistible in spite of the fact that—or, indeed, because—upward mobility is more elusive than ever,” a discussion of the tropes in Hillbilly Elegy said. That could easily become “It’s an ideal many find irresistible even though—or, indeed, because—upward mobility is more elusive than ever.” Or, if you heed our advice to complete one thought before starting another, “It’s an ideal many find irresistible even though upward mobility is more elusive than ever—or, indeed, because it is.”

What we just did there might be considered a needless overreaction to a sentence that could have been clearer. In other words, we may have cut off our nose to “spite” our face.

THE MEDIA TODAY: Covering racial justice in 2020

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.