The Grammarphobia Blog

How incidental is an incident?

Q: The word “incident” is used all the time now for life-changing events. I thought “incident” and “incidentals” had to do with small things, inconsequential ones. My dog snapped at yours: an incident. Your spouse was killed by a mass-murderer: not an incident. Perhaps I am understanding its meaning too narrowly?

A: When the noun “incident” first appeared in English in the early 15th century, it did indeed refer to an incidental occurrence, according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

The OED, an etymological dictionary that focuses on the history of words, defines this early sense as “something that occurs casually in the course of, or in connection with, something else, of which it constitutes no essential part; an event of accessory or subordinate character.”

Oxford says the English noun ultimately comes from the classical Latin verb incidĕre (to fall into, fall to, fall upon, or happen to).

As John Ayto explains in his Dictionary of Word Origins, “an incident is literally that which ‘befalls.’ ”

“The use of a word that literally means ‘fall’ to denote the concept of ‘happening’ is quite a common phenomenon,” Ayto says, adding that “it operates in other languages than English: Welsh digwydd ‘happen,’ for instance, is derived from cwyddo ‘fall.’ ”

Getting back to English, the earliest example for “incident” in the OED is from John Lydgate’s Troy Book, a Middle English poem written in the early 1400s and first printed in 1513:

“But incydentes that beare no substaunce, / Whiche were but vayne to put in remēbrance.” (We’ve edited and expanded the citation.)

In the early 20th century, according to Oxford, the term took on a more serious sense: “An occurrence or event, sometimes comparatively trivial in itself, which precipitates or could precipitate political unrest, open warfare, etc. Also, a particular episode (air-raid, skirmish, etc.) in war; an unpleasant or violent argument, a fracas.”

The dictionary’s first example for the new sense is from The Annual Register for 1912 (published in 1913):

“He had invariably done everything France wanted him to do, and, especially at the time of the Agadir incident, had rejected German … advances.”

This example, from a 1920 entry in the diaries of the English poet Wilfrid Scawen Blunt, emphasizes the sense of importance: “Bramley … had reported the incident in a serious light, and Cromer had taken it up seriously, seeing in it … a danger to the British occupation.”

We suspect that this political/military sense led to the more general use of “incident” for any consequential event, as in this Oct. 9, 2018, headline in the Washington Post: “Man pulls gun on three others in road rage incident in Virginia.”

Most standard dictionaries, which focus on the modern meaning of words, say “incident” can now mean either a major or a minor occurrence.

The Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary, for example, includes the earlier senses, but adds that “incident” can also mean “an occurrence of an action or situation that is a separate unit of experience” and gives “happening” as a synonym.

The primary definition in Oxford Dictionaries Online, another standard dictionary, is simply “an event or occurrence,” while the first sense in Webster’s New World College Dictionary (5th ed.) is “something that happens; happening; occurrence.”

When used today, the context usually makes clear the importance or unimportance of an incident: “the spilled wine was an embarrassing incident” …  “an international incident that led to war.”

As for “incidental,” the word has referred to something minor, subordinate, or accidental since it showed up as an adjective in the 17th century.

The first OED example is from “Of Education” (1644), a brief treatise by John Milton: “Those incidentall discourses which we have wander’d into.”

The dictionary’s first example for the noun “incidental” is from a 1707 entry in the diary of Samuel Sewall, a Massachusetts judge:

“The accidental occasions of hiring Transport Ships, together with the other Incidentals that must necessarily accrue.”

Sewall is better known as one of the nine judges at the 1692-93 Salem witch trials—the only one to apologize publicly for his role.

On Jan. 14, 1697, he stood in Boston’s South Church while the minister, Samuel Willard, read a statement in which Sewall said he “Desires to take the Blame and Shame of it, Asking pardon of Men, And especially desiring prayers that God, who has an Unlimited Authority, would pardon that sin and all other his sins.”

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