English English language Etymology Usage Word origin

Extrovert or extravert?

Q: I make a point of using “extravert,” not “extrovert,” because that’s how Myers-Briggs spells it. I did the personality test and learned I’m neither an “introvert” nor an “extravert.” I’m right on the line—I call myself an “ambivert.” Your thoughts?

A: We’ve checked six standard dictionaries and all of them list “extrovert” as the principal spelling for someone with an outgoing or gregarious personality, though five include “extravert” as an acceptable variant.

The two spellings showed up in writing at about the same time, “extravert” in 1916 and “extrovert” in 1918, according to citations in the Oxford English Dictionary.

Etymologically, “extravert” is the term one would expect. In Latin, extra means outside and vertere means to turn. So an “extravert” turns outward.

So where did the “extro-” spelling come from? As the OED explains, it’s “a quasi-Latin prefix” influenced by the “intro-” prefix of the term “introvert.”

Despite the questionable etymology of “extrovert,” speakers of English overwhelming prefer it to “extravert,” which explains why “extrovert” is the principal spelling in standard dictionaries.

The term “extravert” is more at home in the literature of psychology. That’s why the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator, the personality questionnaire you filled out,  lists “extraversion,” not “extroversion,” as a psychological preference.

As Oxford Dictionaries online explains, “The original spelling extravert is now rare in general use but is found in technical use in psychology.”

In fact, standard dictionaries generally define the term one way in the language of psychology and another way in common usage.

In psychology, according to the online Merriam-Webster’s Unabridged, it refers to “one whose attention and interests are directed wholly or predominantly toward what is outside the self.”

In general usage, however, it simply refers to “a gregarious and unreserved person,” Merriam-Webster’s says.

However, the principal spelling in dictionaries is “extrovert,” whether the word is used in the psychological or the general sense.

As for the history of these words, let’s begin with the verb “introvert,” which appeared in the mid-1600s, when it meant to turn one’s thoughts inward in spiritual contemplation.

The first example in the OED, using the past participle, is from Abraham Woodhead’s 1671 translation of the writings of St. Teresa of Ávila: “The Soul being straight, introverted … into itself, and easily conforming to God’s will and time.”

At about the same time, the verb “extravert” showed up in chemistry in the sense of to turn outward and make visible the latent parts of a substance.

The first OED example is from Hydrologia Chymica, a 1669 book by William Simpson: “It is not the moist air that extraverts any preexistent nitrous parts from the body of the minerals.”

It wasn’t until the early 20th century that “introvert” and “extravert” appeared as nouns with their modern meanings in psychology and common usage. (A noun “introvert” appeared in the late 19th century as a scientific term for a body part that can turn inward.)

The nouns “introvert” and “extravert” showed up for the first time in the same sentence in Constance Ellen Long’s 1916 English translation of the papers of Carl Gustav Jung, the founder of analytical psychology:

“An Extravert can hardly conceive the necessity which compels the Introvert to conquer the world by means of a system.”

The adjectival use of the past participles “introverted” and “extraverted” appeared a bit earlier in a 1915 paper that Jung wrote for the Journal of Abnormal Psychology:

“An extraverted individual can hardly understand the necessity that forces the introverted to accomplish his adaptation by first formulating a general conception.”

The OED’s first citation for the “extrovert” spelling is from a paper by Phyllis Blanchard in the April 1918 issue of the American Journal of Psychology:

“Jung’s hypothesis of the two psychological types, the introvert and extrovert,—the thinking type and the feeling type.”

An Aug. 31, 2015, post on Scientific American’s Beautiful Minds blog suggests that Blanchard’s spelling of “extrovert” was “an innocent mistake.”

However, another psychologist, William McDougall, used the same spelling a few years later in An Outline of Abnormal Psychology (1926):

“The characteristic neurosis of the extrovert is hysteria, while that of the introvert is neurasthenia or psychasthenia.”

The author of the Scientific American post is bugged by “extrovert” because it doesn’t conform to Jung’s spelling and to the Latin roots of the word.

But it’s silly to expect an English word, no matter what its origin, to conform to the rules of another language. When English adopts a word from a foreign language, the word develops a life of its own.

That’s why words like “agenda,” “candelabra,” “erotica,” “insignia,” “opera,” “stamina” and “trivia” have become singular in English despite their plural foreign roots. And why we use “perfume” instead of the French parfum or the Old Italian parfumo.

Yes, some words derived from other languages (“rendezvous,” “piñata,” and “zeitgeist,” for example) look and sound pretty much the same as the originals. But we don’t tell the barista at Starbucks that we want “two cappuccini.”

Today, as we’ve said, “extrovert” is the usual spelling while “extravert” is primarily seen in psychological writing.

In fact, all the examples for “extravert” in the OED are from the world of psychology, as is this citation from Psycho-Analysis for Normal People (1926), by Geraldine Coster:

“The extravert goes out to people and things, enjoying contacts and shrinking from solitude and meditation.”

Although “extrovert” is now far more popular than “extravert” in writing, “extraversion” is more common in books than “extroversion,” according searches with Google’s Ngram viewer, perhaps because of its prevalence in technical literature.

“Extraversion” first appeared in the 1915 paper that Jung wrote for the Journal of Abnormal Psychology: “I called the hysterical type the extraversion type and the psychasthénic type the introversion type.”

The “extroversion” spelling showed up in Arthur George Tansley’s The New Psychology and Its Relation to Life (1920): “Extroversion is the thrusting out of the mind on to life, the use of the mind in practical affairs, the pouring out of the libido on external objects.”

As for “ambivert,” a person with a balance of “extrovert” and “introvert” features, the term showed up in writing not long after the other words we’ve discussed.

The earliest example in the OED is from Kimball Young’s Source Book for Social Psychology (1927).

After describing people who are introverted some of the time and extroverted at other times, Young writes: “It is these I have called ambiverts.” (We’ve gone to the original to put the Oxford citation in context.)

Help support the Grammarphobia Blog with your donation.
And check out
our books about the English language.