The Grammarphobia Blog

Do we get lucky or fortunate?

Q: During a pool tournament online, the commentator repeatedly used “fortunate” when I would have used “lucky.” Example: “He needs to get fortunate here.” To me, “fortunate” is a state of being and “lucky” is how you get to that state. Was the commentator just trying to sound intelligent?

A: One meaning of “fortunate” is “lucky,” and one meaning of “lucky” is “fortunate.” But that doesn’t mean they’re always interchangeable.

For instance, we often say that someone “got lucky.” But we’re less likely to say that he “got fortunate.” It’s not technically incorrect, just not a very common usage.

On the other hand, both “He was lucky” and “He was fortunate” are common usages and have identical meanings. The only difference is in their tone—“lucky” is less formal than “fortunate.”

Here’s how the Oxford English Dictionary defines these two adjectives when used to describe people.

Lucky: “Having, or attended by, good luck. In early use often, Fortunate, successful, prosperous. Now with narrower meaning: Favoured by chance; successful through causes other than one’s own action or merit.”

Fortunate: “Favoured by fortune; possessed of or receiving good fortune; lucky, prosperous.”

They’re very much alike, aren’t they? So why does English have two words for this?

Because, like “augur” and “bode” (which we wrote about recently on the blog), we got one from each of the two great language streams that make up English—the Germanic (“lucky”) and the Latinate (“fortunate”).

“Lucky” was first recorded around 1503, but the noun it’s derived from, “luck,” was around in the 1400s. The noun, meaning “fortune good or ill,” is from old Germanic sources and probably came into English as a gambling term, the OED suggests.

“Fortunate,” from the Latin fortunatus, was first recorded in English in the late 1300s.

Why do people “get lucky” more often than they “get fortunate”? We can’t tell. Perhaps it’s just the way those adjectives have diverged in their usage.

For whatever reason, “get lucky” seems more natural and idiomatic to more people. The Google score: “get lucky,” 10.4 million hits; “get fortunate,” 162,000 hits.

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