The Grammarphobia Blog

Do we dignify this usage?

Q: I use the verb “indignify” in the sense of to insult or disgrace, but I can’t find it in my dictionary and whenever I type it in an MS Word document a red line pops up under it indicating a misspelling or a nonexistent term. Am I wrong to use it?

A: If you don’t mind sounding a bit quaint, go right ahead and use the verb “indignify.” You may get puzzled or even indignant looks, however.

Such a word does exist, but it hasn’t been used much since the 19th century. We found a few hundred examples in a recent Google search, but many of them were on language sites.

The Oxford English Dictionary says “indignify” means “to treat with indignity; to dishonour; to represent as unworthy.” The dictionary says the word is now obsolete.

It was coined in the 16th century, but not in the way you might expect—by adding the negative prefix “in-” to the verb “dignify.” Instead, it was formed from the suffix “-fy” and the Latin adjective indignus (unworthy).

The verb “dignify” also entered English in the 16th century. It was borrowed from Old French (dignefier or dignifier), which in turn came from the medieval Latin word dignificare (to honor or make worthy).

So “dignify” and “indignify” made their way into the language independently, though they’re related through a common Latin ancestor, dignus (worthy).

In fact, English once had two related adjectives, “digne” (worthy or honorable) and “indign” (unworthy or undeserving), from that same Latin ancestor. But those words, which were older than “dignify” and “indignify,” are now obsolete or archaic.

The OED’s first citation for “indignify” is from a long pastoral poem by Edmund Spenser, Colin Clout’s Come Home Againe (1595):

“I deeme it best to hold eternally / Their bounteous deeds and noble fauours shrynd, / Then by discourse them to indignifie.”

(We’ve gone to the original to expand on the citation. The word “shrynd” here means venerated. In later printings of the poem, “then” is changed to “than.”)

The OED’s last citation, dated 1743, is from Edward Poston’s The Pratler, a collection of essays and letters: “The very Idea … is greatly indignified, even by our aiming or pretending to understand it.”

However, we’ve found some 19th-century usages, and even a few strays in 20th-century writing, aside from the more recent sightings on Google.

Today, you’ll find “indign” in many contemporary standard dictionaries (labeled “archaic” or “obsolete”), but “indignify” is a rarity. The only entry for it we find is in Webster’s Third New International Dictionary, Unabridged, where it’s listed as obsolete.

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