The Grammarphobia Blog

Silence, please!

Q: I recently saw the phrase “vociferous reader” (instead of “voracious“) in an obituary. Encountering it for the first time as a 55-year-old, I felt it must be a rare accidental usage, but I discovered from Google that it is far more common than I had imagined. I would like to mention it on my own blog but I do not know the proper name for this particular type of incorrect usage. Can you help?

A: “Vociferous reader” is a very good example of a malapropism! When I googled the phrase, I got 964 hits, some tongue-in-cheek.

Here’s a definition of “malapropism” from the Oxford English Dictionary: “The ludicrous misuse of words, esp. in mistaking a word for another resembling it; an instance of this.”

I’ve written two blog items about malapropisms. If you’d like to read more, check out the entry for Jan 2, 2007, and the one for Oct. 24, 2008.

As for the adjective “voracious,” it ultimately comes from the Latin vorare, meaning to devour. When it first appeared in print in 1635, the English word meant greedy about food. The earliest published reference in the OED is from a poem that condemns “voracious Gluttony abus’d.”

By the early 1700s, though, “voracious” was being used figuratively to describe insatiable desires or interests that had nothing to do with food. A 1712 citation from the English essayist Joseph Addison in the Spectator refers to “a Voracious Appetite” for news.

The first (and only) published reference in the OED to literary voraciousness is from an 1883 article in an evangelical magazine: “Mr. Rowland … was a voracious reader.”

The adjective “vociferous,” which entered English around the same time as “voracious,” is ultimately derived from the Latin vociferari, meaning to shout or yell. In modern English, it refers to a noisy or vehement outcry.

So, a library with a “Silence, please!” sign would welcome a voracious, but not a vociferous reader.

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