The Grammarphobia Blog

Inchoate of many colors

Q: I know “inchoate” means “I am in and I ate the chocolate,” but I have never heard anyone actually use it in conversation, with the possible exception of William F. Buckley. I would like to start a petition to retire “inchoate” from the English language. I would have it spend its remaining years on Buckley Island – reserved exclusively for the founder of the National Review and words only he uses in conversation. To visit “inchoate” and its friends, dock at the Harbor of Pretentiousness, make your way up Snob Beach to the Blackford Oakes Housing Project, whisper the password (“boola boola”) … and you’re in!

A: Yours takes the Grammarphobia.com prize for funniest e-mail of 2007 (so far)! Your island is a very good idea, and I love the password. But I don’t think “inchoate” is as retiring as you seem to believe. I just googled it and came up with nearly a million hits. Yikes!

I’ve learned from Wikipedia that an “inchoate offense” is conduct deemed criminal without actual harm being done. Could “inchoate” itself be charged with the offense if it plots to leave the island?

The word “inchoate,” which means (I’m sure you know) in the early stages, comes from the Latin incohare (to begin). It’s been around for quite some time: the first citation in the Oxford English Dictionary dates from 1534.

What catches my eye is a 1993 addition to the OED with a new meaning of this old word: disordered, incoherent, or confused. How did a word meaning just beginning come to mean messy? One possibility, according to the OED, is that people simply mixed up “inchoate” and “chaotic.”

English, it seems, is a messy (or, dare I say, inchoate) business.

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