The Grammarphobia Blog

Specious thinking

Q: I’m reading Origins of the Specious, your book about language myths, and I wonder if the words “specious” and “species” are related. Perhaps there’s a myth involved here.

A: Not exactly a myth, but an interesting etymological twist or two.

Believe it or not, “specious” began life in English around 1400 as an adjective meaning beautiful or pleasing to the eye, an adaptation of the Latin speciosus (fair, beautiful).

Although the Oxford English Dictionary has published references for this usage from around 1400 until the early 1800s, it’s now considered obsolete.

Not until the 1600s, according to the OED, did “specious” come to mean deceptively attractive or plausible.

Digging deeper into the word’s history, its ultimate source is – yes – the Latin species (appearance, form, kind), which of course gave us the English word “species.”

The English noun originally referred to appearance or outward form, the OED tells us, but in the 1600s “species” came to mean a class, as of plants or animals.

That’s about when “specious” began acting deceptively.

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