Etymology Usage

An apocryphal moment?

Q: I was listening to a trailer for a BBC Radio 4 broadcast about the reconstruction of the Globe Theatre when a novel usage caught my attention. The speaker referred to an “apocryphal” moment in which she realized she wanted to be involved in the project. Have you noticed a shift in the meaning of “apocryphal”?

A: No, we hadn’t noticed, at least not until we got your question.

A bit of googling, though, suggests that quite a few other people are using (or, rather, misusing) the adjective “apocryphal” to describe a sudden insight or inspiration or perception.

We came across a book on cancer research, for example, that describes an inspired technological breakthrough in treatment as “truly an apocryphal moment.”

You’re not the only person to raise an eyebrow at that BBC Radio 4 broadcast on April 22, 2012, of The Reunion. In the broadcast, the host Sue MacGregor reunited five people involved in the reconstruction of the theater.

We noticed several comments online by BBC listeners who wondered whether Claire van Kampen, the woman speaking, might have meant “apocalyptic,” not “apocryphal.” But we find that unlikely after listening to the comments by van Kampen, the new Globe’s first music director.

In the broadcast, she describes the moment that inspired her to join the project. She was visiting the site with her husband, the actor Mark Rylance, and felt disappointed at how little progress had been made:

“And then suddenly it—it was one of those apocryphal moments. The moon came out from behind the clouds. And it shone directly on this—this place. And then we heard St. Paul’s chime and we thought, ‘No, no, this—this is going to be magical. And we—we really want to be involved.’ ”

Our guess is that she (like others who misuse the term) was under the mistaken impression that “apocryphal,” which means inauthentic, erroneous, or fictitious, could be used to describe an epiphany.

Webster’s Third New International Dictionary, Unabridged, defines epiphany as “a usually sudden manifestation or perception of the essential nature or meaning of something”  or “an intuitive grasp of reality through something usually simple and striking.”

We couldn’t find a single standard dictionary that includes insightful, inspirational, or perceptive as a sense of “apocryphal.”

When the adjective showed up in English in the late 16th century, it referred to a statement or story or other piece of writing.

By the early 17th century, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, it was being used to refer to the “the Jewish and early Christian uncanonical literature”—that is the Apocrypha, the etymological parent of the adjective.

Around the same time, “apocryphal” took on its modern meaning of unreal, counterfeit, or sham. The earliest OED citation for this sense is from Ben Jonson’s 1612 comedy The Alchemist: “A whoresonne, vpstart, Apocryphall Captayne.”

So will the inspirational sense of “apocryphal” that you noticed catch on? We haven’t had an epiphany, but we don’t think so.

Check out our books about the English language