The Grammarphobia Blog

Incidentally, Franny has the measles

Q: When did the word “incidentally” lose popularity? Was it ever really popular outside of J. D. Salinger’s books? For me, it’s another older word that I like but can’t use because it doesn’t seem to fit into conversation anymore.

A: Hmm. I don’t think “incidentally” has fallen out of favor, even among people who haven’t read Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters. In fact, I just googled the word and got 15 million hits.

“Incidentally” first appeared in print in the mid-17th century, meaning “in an incidental manner; as an incident, or a subordinate and casual circumstance,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

The earliest OED citation for the word in its modern sense (“in point of fact,” “by the way”) is from Theodore Dreiser’s 1925 novel An American Tragedy: “Incidentally by that time the sex lure or appeal had begun to manifest itself.”

And, of course, it appears several times in Raise High the Roof Beam (1955), as in this excerpt from Boo Boo’s letter to Buddy:

“Franny has the measles, for one thing. Incidentally, did you hear her last week? She went on at beautiful length about how she used to fly all around the apartment when she was four and no one was home.”

Incidentally, H. W. Fowler didn’t like the word. In his Modern English Usage (1926), he said it was “now very common as a writer’s apology for an irrelevance.”

Perhaps, but I’m with you. I like the word. And I use it myself. I see nothing wrong with a little wholesome irrelevance once in a while.

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