The Grammarphobia Blog

The vision thing

Q: Occasionally I’ll hear or read that someone is a visionary as though it’s some sort of compliment. However, a visionary to me has always meant an empty-headed dreamer. When did the word lose its original meaning as applying to pie-in-the-sky dreamers? Or is that still the meaning and people simply use it wrong?

A: For centuries, the noun (as well as the adjective) “visionary” was applied to people who were unrealistic, impractical, influenced by illusions and pure fancy. In other words, dreamy airheads.

The Oxford English Dictionary has citations supporting this view dating back to the early 1600s, when someone who was “visionary” was prone to seeing visions. This view persisted well into the 20th century, since my 1954 Webster’s New International Dictionary of the English Language, Unabridged (2d ed.) has similar definitions.

Only in the last few decades has “visionary” taken on a positive spin, meaning somebody with foresight and imagination, a person who’s able to anticipate what’s ahead and capitalize on it.

The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed.) lists this new definition first in its “visionary” entry, but Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.) begins its entry with the old definition and ends with the new one.

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