Misled by the egregious treachery of memory

Right at the end of my previous post, I said that I’d love to see someone deliver commentary on current events in the sesquipedalian style of JEL Seneker. In particular, I was imagining insulting public figures by stealth by using very long words.

That reminded me of an exchange in an episode of the British tv series Yes, Minister, in which Sir Humphrey Appleby (a career civil servant) convinces Jim Hacker (an occasionally well-meaning but usually self-serving politician) that egregious is a compliment. I remembered the exchange as:

Jim (reading a newspaper): “… the egregious Jim Hacker …” What does “egregious” mean?
Sir Humphrey: It means “outstanding”, Minister.
Jim: Oh, that’s nice of them to say so.
Sir Humphrey: I’m glad you think so, Minister.

Searching online just now, it seems that my memory is faulty. Various websites record the exchange as:

Jim: “… the egregious Jim Hacker …” What’s “egregious” mean?
Sir Humphrey: I think it means “outstanding”.
Jim: Oh…?
Sir Humphrey: In one way or another.

Egregious literally means “from the flock”, from Latin grex, gregis. It originally meant “distinguished or eminent”, but now only means “extraordinary in some bad way”. Google Ngrams shows that it is most often followed by error(s), mistake(s), blunder(s), folly, fool, vanity and trifling

Outstanding is usually positive or neutral (example(s), stock, feature(s), debts, characteristic(s), figure and importance) but can be negative given enough context: “Among the worst singers of the 20th century, Florence Foster Jenkins is outstanding.”

I read this word (somewhere, many years – I can’t remember) before I heard it, and had no idea how to pronounce it. I vaguely remember thinking ‘e-greg-i-ous’ (which is actually what the Latin would suggest). I also can’t remember when I first heard it (maybe in this episode of this tv show). Maybe it took a moment to connect a word I’d read but not heard with a word I’d heard but not read. I find it slightly strange that Jim knew how to pronounce it but not what it meant.

Various websites, blogs and forums discuss the phenomena of misles and similar words, that is, of pronouncing and interpreting a word according to its spelling. The prime example is misled, which many people pronounce and interpret as though it is the past tense of the verb to misle – whatever that means. (Pages for  Mac just auto-corrected misles to missiles the first time and miles just then, and misle to aisle.) Earlier this week, the distinguished or eminent Stan Carey posted about being Mizzled by misles, to which various commenters have responded with their own examples, or ones they’ve heard. Another discussion I’ve read is the one on reddit. No doubt there are many more examples and discussions.

I vaguely remember someone saying in one forum: “I love when people mispronounce words like this. It means they read a lot.” The opposite side of the coin is mis-spelling words you’ve only ever heard.

(PS See also for a related issue.)


One thought on “Misled by the egregious treachery of memory

  1. Pingback: Cormac McCarthy’s writing tips | Never Pure and Rarely Simple

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