Word of the Day

One of the things I have visible on my google homepage is dictionary.com’s word of the day. I’d like to think it’s there so I can improve my vocabulary, but really it’s there so I can feel superior at all the words I already know.

Or think I know.

So today’s word is “fortuitous” which is defined as “happening by chance”. This definition struck me as wrong, even for a one-liner. So I looked it up on dictionary.com itself and got a slightly longer definition:

“happening by accident or chance”

With the meaning I expected listed as a “usage problem”. Damn those users! Underneat, was the following explanation (quoted from Dictionary.com):

“In its best-established sense, fortuitous means “happening by accident or chance.” Thus, a fortuitous meeting may have either fortunate or unfortunate consequences. For decades, however, the word has often been used in reference to happy accidents, as in The company’s profits were enhanced as the result of a fortuitous drop in the cost of paper. This use may have arisen because fortuitous resembles both fortunate and felicitous. Whatever its origin, the use is well established in the writing of reputable authors. ·The additional use of fortuitous to mean “lucky or fortunate,” is more controversial, as in He came to the Giants in June as the result of a fortuitous trade that sent two players back to the Reds. This use dates back at least to the 1920s, when H.W. Fowler labeled it a malapropism, but it is still widely regarded as incorrect.”

I’m a great fan of Fowler (or I should say the Fowler brothers), who are collectively responsible for both the modern Oxford English Dictionary and Fowler’s Modern English Usage. I think, however, that it behooves a dictionary to provide definitions of words as they are used (at least as far back as the 1920s) rather than as they ought to be used, since someone looking a word up is probably more interested in what the speaker or writer intended to say than what they would have said if they were in compliance with the 1923 edition of the Oxford English Dictionary.

Incidentally, here’s the current definition of fortuitous from the OED: “adjective 1 happening by chance rather than design. 2 happening by a lucky chance; fortunate.” Note that the “correct” (i.e. if we were in fact speaking Latin and not English) meaning is still first, but the second — more likely intended — meaning is given.

It did pay Dictionary.com for a few ad impressions though, so not all is lost. Does this mean that Dictionary.com has a financial incentive to provide, in essence, incorrect or surprising definitions of words in an effort to drive traffic to its site (increasing ad revenues)? It’s a delicate balancing act — do it a little too often and dictionary.com will soon be thought of as, essentially, useless.

It’s not like Dictionary.com is the last bastion of the English pedant. Here’s their first definition of decimate:

“To destroy or kill a large part of (a group).”

As every good pedant knows, decimate originally meant “to kill every tenth man” and was applied to Roman legions which were seen as having failed in their duty to The Empire. This is provided as the third definition, while the second definition (another usage problem) is hard to tell apart from the first definition. So here we have a well-known “incorrect” usage listed as the top definition, while a far more obscure and less incorrect usage gets a short essay and is listed solely as a usage problem.