The Grammarphobia Blog

A categorical answer

Q: Isn’t a “categorical” denial a limited denial restricted to a specific category? Why do people “categorically” deny something when they should be denying it “uncategorically”?

A: A “categorical” denial is an unconditional one, not merely a denial applying to a single category.

The Oxford English Dictionary says “categorical” entered English in 1598 as a term in logic. A “categorical” proposition was – and still is – one “asserting absolutely” and “not involving a condition or hypothesis,” according to the OED.

The adjectives “categorical” and the now obscure “categoric” are from the Latin categoricus, derived in turn from the Greek kategorikos, meaning accusatory or affirmative.

In the 17th century, “categorical” acquired the meaning of “direct, explicit, express, unconditional,” as in a “categorical” statement or denial.

And this is the principal sense today of the adjective “categorical” (as well as the adverb “categorically”).

The word “category” entered English in 1588, also as a term in logic; its original meaning was a predication or an assertion, a sense borrowed from Aristotle.

The Chambers Dictionary of Etymology says the word is derived the Greek kategoria, whose roots originally meant to assert or speak in an assembly.

The usual meaning now (“a class, or division, in any general scheme of classification”) came into use in 1660, the OED says.

And that’s as categorical an answer as I can give you.

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