The Grammarphobia Blog

Vice isn’t nice, but is it vicious?

Q: After reading your entry on pairing “vicious” with “circle” or “cycle,” I recall reading works from the 19th century and earlier in which “vicious” is used as the opposite of “virtuous.” For example, a womanizer might be described as “vicious.” Any idea when, how, or why this sense evolved to the more loaded current definition?

A: The adjective “vicious” did indeed mean pretty much the opposite of “virtuous” when it entered English in the early 14th century. In fact, that’s still among the word’s meanings in contemporary standard dictionaries.

The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed.), for example, defines it as, among other things, given to vice or immorality.

This sense of the adjective is understandable, since it’s ultimately derived from the Latin vitium (fault, defect, shortcoming), which has also given us the noun “vice.”

The earliest definition of “vicious” in the Oxford English Dictionary says it refers to habits or practices of “the nature of vice; contrary to moral principles; depraved, immoral, bad.”

By the late 14th century, the OED says, it was being used to describe immoral, depraved, or profligate people as well as those who fall short of “what is morally or practically commendable; reprehensible, blameworthy, mischievous.”

How, you ask, did the word take on its “more loaded current definition”? By “more loaded,” we assume you mean its sense of being violent, savage, or cruel.

The OED doesn’t explain this evolution, but we suspect that it had something to do with a sense of “vicious” that developed in the early 1700s, when people began using the word to refer to animals, especially horses, that were savage or dangerous.

In An History of the Earth, and Animated Nature (1774), for example, Oliver Goldsmith writes that horses “naturally belonging to the country, are very small and vicious.”

Pretty soon, the usage was being extended to people, though only loosely at first. An 1814 citation in the OED describes Napoleon as having “a dusky grey eye, which would be called vicious in a horse.”

The OED doesn’t have a more violent human citation, but Webster’s Third New International Dictionary, Unabridged, has one in which the Australian poet Rex Ingamells refers to someone taking “a vicious swing at him with the pick.”

Ingamells, who died violently in a car crash in 1955, was a founder of the nationalist Jindyworobak literary movement in Australia.

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