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A dubious etymology

Q: I’m a bit skeptical about using “dubious” in place of “skeptical.” Do you have any thoughts on this usage?

A: “Dubious” implies vacillation or uncertainty. It comes ultimately from the Latin verb dubitare (to vacillate or waver), which is related to the Latin dubius (doubtful). In the Latin roots you can recognize the “twoness” (from the Latin duo) that’s involved in being hesitant. When we can’t decide or are dubious about something, we sometimes say we’re of two minds.

The classical roots of the word “skeptical” mean simply inquiring or reflective. But in ancient Greece several schools of philosophy emerged, arguing that knowledge is limited (even impossible) and that all inquiry should start with doubt. Disciples called themselves the Skeptics (Skeptikoi). Thus the adjective “skeptical,” when adopted into English in the 17th century, referred not to someone who was inquiring and reflective but to someone who was doubtful.

So much for the history. Today’s definitions of the words overlap a lot. Someone who’s dubious about something harbors doubt – he’s hesitant or undecided. Someone who’s skeptical also harbors doubt, but perhaps disbelief or incredulity besides. So if you’re talking about a doubting person, you could use either adjective, but if the person is also a bit incredulous, “skeptical” would be a stronger word.

A warning, though. “Dubious” is a two-edged sword. It can mean harboring doubt: an undecided person might be dubious about something. But it can also mean arousing doubt: a dubious expense sheet, for example, is one whose veracity is in question. So if you want to avoid casting aspersions on somebody or something, “doubtful” might be better than “dubious.”

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