Word of the Week: Standing out from the flock, in the worst way – art and culture

The word “egregious” actually began as a term of praise, meaning exceptional, distinguished, eminent, or excellent, since it descended from the Latin word egregius or “extraordinary,” from the phrase ex grege “rising above the flock.” But from around the late 16th century, it has come to acquire a completely negative and disapproving connotation, meaning not just exceptional but exceptionally, flagrantly bad, indeed excruciatingly so. This is because you can “stand out from the flock” in a bad way too: the sense of “egregious” over time changed from standing out in a good sense to standing out in a bad sense. There could be no better example of egregiousness than the WhatsApp video going around these days compiling five and a half minutes’ worth of President Trump saying ”nobody understands this better than me” about several different subjects which most experts understand far better than he does.

Egregious (adj.), flagrantly bad, outrageously offensiveUsage: In threatening India with retaliation if we didn’t sell him our stocks of hydroxychloroquine, President Trump behaved egregiously, in a manner unworthy of a Head of State.

Egregious is also the most apposite word for actions that exceed all boundaries of propriety, boundaries of good taste or limits of common sense. Hillary Clinton, reacting to the impeachment of her husband for a minor sexual peccadillo, pointed out that impeachment is included in the Constitution to protect against “a leader whose behaviour would be so egregious, so threatening to the republic, that there had to be a remedy.” Of course, some would consider extra-curricular sex in the Oval Office egregious, but hardly threatening to the republic. Another aide confessed to a minor transgression that still merited the word: “Calling the President ‘bro’ was such an egregious error of judgment, I can’t believe it slipped out like that!”

Egregious is the only word that will do for behaviour that goes even beyond outrageous: “When the party President informed X that a trusted aide, in a shocking development, had defected to the other side, instead of sympathising, X’s egregious response was to ask if she could then have his office at the party headquarters.” The license of a bar in Kerala was suspended for the “egregious violation” of selling alcohol to minors. It was an “egregious mistake” on the minister’s part to quote misleading statistics in a press conference which could easily be refuted by a fact-check. Or, “He is such an egregious liar that if he told me the sun was shining, I would be tempted to look out of the window to check.”

Of course, some centuries ago, the old positive meaning of the word persisted, so that the English political philosopher Thomas Hobbes could use it in complementing a colleague when he remarked, “I am not so egregious a mathematician as you are.” Indeed, in some other Indo-European languages that is still the way the word is used: for instance, in Italian, the word “egregio” means “most excellent” and figures in the formal salutation ‘Egregio Signore’, meaning “Your Excellency” or “Distinguished Sir”. For some 200 years, linguistics experts tell us, both the positive and negative meanings ran in parallel, so that Christopher Marlowe, in his Tamburlaine in 1590, used it in the sense of ‘distinguished’ (“Egregious viceroys of these eastern parts”), while in 1611 Shakespeare has Posthumus describe himself in Cymbeline in the disparaging sense, as an “Egregious murderer”. This would certainly have been pretty confusing for everyone, so it was inevitable that one meaning would win out in the usage battles, and for the last couple of centuries, at least, the strongly negative meaning of “egregious” as something shockingly bad has prevailed.

And finally, for trivia lovers: egregious is an unusually vowelled word, containing all the vowels of the alphabet (except a, but doubling up one to make up for it!). One more reason it’s worth adding to your vocabulary!

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