The Grammarphobia Blog

Jeeves! I’m in the soup.

Q: I might as well unload my frustration concerning the overuse and misuse of the word “scenario.” Thanks for letting me get this off my chest.

A: You’re right that “scenario” is getting a workout. The figurative use of the word isn’t necessarily an error, but the looser meanings sometimes go too far.

The Oxford English Dictionary defines “scenario” as meaning “a sketch or outline of the plot of a play, ballet, novel, opera, story, etc., giving particulars of the scenes, situations, etc.”

The word has been used literally since the latter half of the 19th century and figuratively since the 1920s.

It first appeared in English, according to the OED, in an 1878 entry in the journal of George Henry Lewes, who was George Eliot’s companion and mentor.

Lewes wrote: “Schemed a scenario from Daniel Deronda.” (Lewes and Eliot were planning a play based on her 1876 novel.)

“Scenario” was adapted from the Italian word scena (a scene in a play) and its derivative, scenario (the arrangement of scenes in a play).

The Italian scenario had earlier given us our word “scenery,” which originally (then spelled “scenary”) was adapted into English in 1695 and meant an arrangement of scenes in a play.

Later, in the 1700s, “scenery” came to mean both a painted stage set and a picturesque natural landscape.

In English, “scenery” has been used in a figurative sense since 1770, with authors’ saying such things as “She’s part of the scenery” and “the shifting scenery of a man’s life.”

In fact, just to bring things full circle, here’s a figurative use of “scenery” from Eliot’s novel Daniel Deronda: “Gwendolen was just then enjoying the scenery of her life.”

Like “scenery,” the noun “scenario” also developed figurative meanings in English. Here are a couple of figurative uses by a favorite author of mine, P. G. Wodehouse.

The first is from The Inimitable Jeeves (1923):

” ‘Jeeves!’
” ‘Sir?’
” ‘I’m in the soup.’
” ‘Indeed, sir?’
“I sketched out the scenario for him.
” ‘What would you advise?’ “

The next is from Bill the Conqueror (1924):

“A young man in a vivid check suit came out, a small young man with close-set eyes and the scenario of a moustache.”

In the second example, Wodehouse uses “scenario” to mean something like “sketch.”

Like you, many people think freer uses of “scenario” can get to be a bit much. The OED notes that “weakened senses” of the word include “circumstance, situation, scene, sequence of events, etc.”

R. W. Burchfield, a former editor of the OED, adds in a note: “The over-use of this word in various loose senses has attracted frequent hostile comment.”

Burchfield also edited The New Fowler’s Modern English Usage, in which he has this to say about “scenario”:

“It could hardly have been foreseen that it would become immensely popular from the 1960s onwards in the broad sense ‘a postulated sequence of (future) events.’ Every kind of circumstance, situation, relationship, train of events, etc., came to be called a scenario, and there is no sign of any weakening of the grip that the word has on the language.”

I’ll conclude with this advice from Burchfield: “A wise writer uses the word sparingly.”

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