The Grammarphobia Blog

A storied usage

Q: Two years ago I noticed “storied” rearing its head. “Aha,” I thought, “someone has figured out a way to get out of the ‘famous’ trap,” the trap being that you can’t call someone “famous,” because if he or she really is famous, you don’t need to say it. But “storied” is ever worse. “Famous” has its antipode, “infamous.” But “storied” doesn’t tell you anything, except this is someone or something often written about. Am I being a total crank?

A: My opinion is that this craze, too, will pass. Once “storied” becomes worn around the edges (and it must be getting there considering all the websites that have glommed on to it), people will go back to “fabled” and “legendary,” which used to drive me up the walls when I was an editor.

I wouldn’t, however, expect that we’ll ever see the last of “storied.” It’s had a long and at times storied history as an adjective and a past participle.

When it first appeared in print in the 15th century, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, it meant “ornamented with scenes from history or legend by means of sculpture, painting, needlework or other art; also, inscribed with a legend or memorial record.”

The OED’s first published reference for this usage is from one of the first illustrated books printed in England, William Caxton’s Myrrour of the Worlde (1481), which refers to “precyous bookes richely lymned storyed and wel adoubed.”

Alexander Pope was the first writer to use “storied” in the sense of “celebrated or recorded in history or story,” according to the ­OED.

In his 1725 translation of the Odyssey, Pope writes of the disasters that befall Odysseus: “Recite them! nor in erring pity fear / To wound with storied grief the filial ear.”

And speaking of the desperation for fresh (ha!) words in this general category, have you noticed the use of “infamous” to mean “famous” or “celebrated”? Perhaps people think the prefix is an intensifier rather than a negative. I wrote a blog entry a while back on this use of “infamous.”

Are you being cranky? Well, perhaps. But why not?


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