English English language Etymology Usage Word origin

Contrite and sarcastic?

Q: I recently came across a complaint on the Web about a “contrite and sarcastic” worker at a pizza place. I don’t see how someone can be both contrite and sarcastic. Have you noticed this usage? Can you shed any light on it?

A: It’s difficult to imagine someone who’s both “contrite” and “sarcastic,” at least not at the same time, since those words describe conflicting attitudes.

Someone who’s “contrite” is sorry, and feels regret or sadness about an offense. But someone who’s “sarcastic” is expressing contempt or ridicule.

A Google search did turn up a handful of instances in which writers mistakenly combined “contrite” and “sarcastic.” All the examples seemed to come from blogs, discussion groups, or social networks.

For example, a contributor to a forum about video-game websites was described as “abusive, contrite, sarcastic and just plain mean.”

A contributor to a scuba-diving discussion group wrote, “So I hope you do not take my responses as contrite, sarcastic, flip or disrespectful.”

And a political tweet accused Hillary Clinton of offering “a contrite, sarcastic response” when asked why she didn’t make the rounds more on the Sunday talk shows.

Huh? The use of “sarcastic” is understandable, since these remarks were generally negative. But “contrite” is definitely out of place.

Perhaps these writers are confusing “contrite” with some other word, but what could it be? “Contemptuous” … “contentious” … “contrary”?

A more likely explanation is that they simply don’t know what “contrite” means, and are using it to mean something like rude or dismissive or blunt. Everyone who writes for public consumption should have access to a standard dictionary!

“Contrite,” as we indicated above, is far from rude. The Oxford English Dictionary says it’s been used by writers since the 14th century, when it had a religious flavor.

The original meaning was “crushed or broken in spirit by a sense of sin, and so brought to complete penitence.”

This was a figurative adaptation of the word’s Latin ancestor. As the OED explains, the Latin adjective contritus means bruised or crushed, and comes from the verb conterere (to rub or grind together).

In English, the word still means what it meant almost 700 years ago, though it has a secular sense as well. Here are some examples from famous sources, courtesy of the OED:

“Create and make in vs newe and contrite heartes.” (From The Book of Common Prayer, 1549.)

“Her contrite sighes vnto the clouds bequeathed / Her winged sprite.” (From Shakespeare’s poem The Rape of Lucrece, 1594.)

“With our sighs … sent from hearts contrite, in sign / Of sorrow unfeign’d, and humiliation meek.” (From Milton’s Paradise Lost, 1667.)

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