The Grammarphobia Blog

An opinion on opinionated

Q: Are we seeing a shift in the meaning of “opinionated”? Merriam-Webster’s defines it as “unduly adhering to one’s own opinion or to preconceived notions,” but lately the meaning seems to have expanded to include the less negative denotation of having many firm opinions. I’m curious about what you think.

A: The adjective “opinionated” has indeed gained a new, less negative sense—at least in American English—though this meaning isn’t recognized by most standard dictionaries.

It first showed up in the US in the 1960s, according to citations in the Oxford English Dictionary, and it represents somewhat of a return to the original neutral sense of the word.

We’ve found only one standard dictionary that includes both senses of the word, Merriam-Webster.com, the online version of the dictionary you mentioned.

Merriam-Webster online includes the definition you cited (“unduly adhering to one’s own opinion or to preconceived notions”) and a relatively neutral one (“expressing strong beliefs or judgments about something: having or showing strong opinions”).

The first definition is from M-W’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.) and the second is from M-W’s Learner’s Dictionary, which is intended for students of English as a second language.

Peter Sokolowski, editor at large at the Merriam-Webster company, explained in an email to us that the Learner’s reference is M-W’s most recent dictionary and “its definitions sometimes do reflect new subtleties and changes.”

When the adjective “opinionated” entered English in the late 1500s, it meant simply “having a (specified) opinion” or “of the opinion (that),” but the OED describes this sense of the word as obsolete.

The dictionary’s first citation is from Robert Dallington’s 1592 translation of Hypnerotomachia Poliphili, a romance by Francesco Colonna written in Latinate Italian:

“Being perswaded and firmly opinionated, that this sight was a traunce in loue.”

The OED says the negative sense of the word (“thinking too highly of, or holding obstinately to, one’s own opinion; conceited; dogmatic”) showed up in the early 1600s.

The first citation is from Joseph Taylor’s Life and Death of the Virgin Mary (1630):

“Though hee be but a Botcher, or a Button-maker, and at the most a lumpe of opinionated ignorance, yet he will seeme to wring the Scriptures to his opinions.”

In the mid-20th century, according to Oxford, a more or less neutral sense of the word showed up in the US: “Holding firm views or opinions.”

However, the dictionary notes that it’s often difficult to tell whether writers are using the term to describe people with firm opinions or with obstinate ones.

The OED’s first example of this new usage is from Woman of Valor, Irving Fineman’s 1961 biography of the American Zionist Henrietta Szold:

“How to handle a young man as high-spirited and opinionated as herself.”

The dictionary’s most recent example of the usage is from the Nov. 8, 2002, issue of the Journal and Courier in Lafayette, IN:

“I mean, being opinionated and pushing the envelope is all fine and good, as long as you show a little self-respect.”

A bit of googling suggests to us that many people who appear to be using the new sense are actually using the old one in a humorously hyperbolic way, especially to refer to themselves.

The word pops up a lot in the titles of blogs or posts. Here’s a sample: “Opinionated About Dining” … “Opinionated Democrat” … “Opinionated Catholic” … “Opinionated Geek” … “Opinionated Palate” … “Ms. Opinionated” … “Little Miss Opinionated.”

We think the word “opinionated” in those titles, which refer to the authors’ own blogs or posts, is being used in the traditional, negative sense, though with tongue in cheek.

Perhaps the prevalence of this ironic or facetious usage accounts for the OED’s difficulty in telling whether the old or new sense of the word is being used.

Does the new sense of “opinionated” have legs? We’re not sure, and lexicographers apparently aren’t either.

We checked nine standard dictionaries in the US and the UK, and only Merriam-Webster.com (as we’ve said) has both the old and new senses.

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