Q: I hear people use “trepidatious” to mean fearful or anxious, but I can’t find it in my dictionary and my spell-checker tells me it’s wrong. Is “trepidatious” a word?
A: It’s a word, just as “ain’t” or “brung” is a word, but is it proper English?
The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed.) and Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.), the two dictionaries I consult the most, don’t include “trepidatious.”
But the 20-volume Oxford English Dictionary does indeed have it. The OED describes “trepidatious” as a word of U.S. origin that means apprehensive, nervous, or filled with trepidation.
The OED’s earliest published reference is in a 1940 issue of the Circleville Herald, an Ohio newspaper: “A trepidatious Europe today remained tense, worried, fearful, for the outcome of what military men predict will be the greatest battle in the history of the world.”
Although some sticklers may object to the use of a word that hasn‘t made its way into most mainstream dictionaries, I see nothing wrong with this usage as long as the guy at the other end (the reader or listener) understands it.
If you’d like to learn more, the linguist Arnold Zwicky has a strong defense of “trepidatious” in a posting on the Language Log.
Buy Pat’s books at a local store or Amazon.com.