Etymology Usage

Is “injust” one of those things?

Q: My daughter came home with a list of words to study for her third-grade class. One was “injustice,” which she had to use in a sentence. She then had to use derivatives and she wrote a sentence using “injust.” I told her “injust” wasn’t a word and she ought to use “unjust,” but she insisted her teacher said it was correct. Can you help clarify?

A: Well, you won’t find “injust” in standard dictionaries, but it is indeed a word—an antiquated adjective that may be having a revival.

The Oxford English Dictionary, which describes the word as “obsolete,” says “injust” means the same as “unjust”: that is, not just.

The earliest citation for “injust” in the OED is from a collection of poems, published sometime before 1430, by John Lydgate. The latest is from a 1711 diary entry by the English antiquarian Thomas Hearne.

A series of Google searches suggests that “injust” began showing signs of a rebirth in the 1970s. Since then, there have been more than 700,000 sightings of the usage on Google.

Despite all its recent fans, we wouldn’t describe “injust” as standard English—at least not yet.

For now, if we meant unjust, we’d use “unjust,” the older adjective and by far the more popular. It entered English in the late 1300s, according to OED citations, and gets more than 25 million hits on Google.

The noun “injustice,” which also entered English in the late 1300s, means the opposite of justice or an action that’s unjust.

All three words are ultimately derived from two Latin terms concerning justice: the noun justitia (justice) and the adjective justus (just).

Interestingly, “injustice” and “injust” have negative Latin prefixes, while “unjust” combines an Old English prefix with a Latin root.

A traditionalist, especially a Latinist, might argue that “injust” is the more “legitimate” adjective because it reflects its Latin roots better than “unjust.”

But the use of negative prefixes in English with words of Latin origin is so capricious that it’s meaningless to use a word like “legitimate” here.

From the 14th century on, the OED notes, the negative prefixes “in-” and “un-” have been added with “considerable variation” to words of Latin origin.

In fact, some of these words had versions using both prefixes. For example, “inability,” “incorrigible,” “incurable,” and “indiscreet” once existed alongside “un-” versions.

Since the 17th century, the OED says, there’s been a tendency “to discard one or other of the doublets, the forms with in-, etc., being very commonly preferred when the whole word has a distinctively Latin character, as inadequate, inadvertence, inarticulate, etc.”

But there’s “no absolute rule” about whether to keep one or both prefixes, the OED adds, “and doublets are still numerous, as in- or un-advisable, in- or un-alienable, etc.”

Getting back to your question: yes, “injust” is a word, but we suspect that your daughter’s third-grade teacher doesn’t know much about etymology and simply mistook it for the far more common adjective “unjust.”

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