How forthright is “forthcoming”?

Q: My issue is the use of “forthcoming” to mean forthright. I first heard this from Richard Nixon during his Watergate troubles, but it’s now common among public figures. Can “forthcoming” really refer to something other than in the future?

A: Yes, “forthcoming” does mean something other than merely in the future, and that’s been true since well before the Watergate scandal.

The word was first recorded in English in the early 16th century and was used to describe both people and things.

Its original meaning, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, was “about to or likely to come forth; also simply, coming or approaching (in time).” 

The first recorded use is in a letter written sometime between 1521 and 1532 by Bishop John Longland, who was confessor to King Henry VIII.

Here’s the quotation: “That he be forth comyng to his answere when your Grace shall commaund.”

And here’s a later citation from Robert Burton’s The Anatomy of Melancholy (1621): “Memory layes up all the species which the senses have brought in and records them as a good register that they may be forth coming when they are called for.”

A later meaning of “forthcoming,” the OED says, emerged in the 19th century: “Ready to make or meet advances. Also, informative, responsive.”

The dictionary’s first citation for this usage comes from Thomas Moore’s Memoirs (1856): “Nothing could be more frank or forthcoming than his manner.”

So, for example, all of these could properly be described as “forthcoming”:

(1) a person who’s willing to come forth with something (as in that 16th-century letter);

(2) the something that’s about to be produced (as in Burton’s quotation);

(3) an approaching holiday or other event;

(4) a person who’s informative or responsive—in other words, forthright (as in Moore’s quotation).

The adjective “forthright,” by the way, did not always mean what it does today.

Beginning around 1000, the OED says, “forthright” meant “proceeding in a straight course, directly in front of one, straight forward.”

Only in the mid-19th century, the OED adds, did it acquire its figurative meaning: “going straight to the point, straightforward, unswerving, outspoken.”

By the way, did you notice the differing meanings of “straight forward” and “straightforward” in the previous two paragraphs?

Yes, we have here another example of how words evolve.

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