Q: What are your thoughts about “gravitas” and its overuse in recent election cycles?
A: This pompous word for “seriousness” or “solemnity” sounds ancient, but “gravitas” has only been an English word since the late 19th century. As you’ve noticed, though, it’s become ubiquitous lately.
In fact, “gravitas” has been worked to death. You might say that among certain classes of writers, “gravitas” carries a lot of weight. It seems especially popular in criticism (literary, artistic, etc.) as well as in writing about politics and culture.
A search with Google’s Ngram viewer, which tracks words and phrases in digitized books, shows that its use has shot up steeply since the mid-1980s, charting an almost vertical climb.
But there are signs that the word is showing some wear. In the last couple of years, the chart shows, its use has leveled off and may have peaked.
What’s more, writers have started giving it modifiers—“epic gravitas,” “monumental gravitas,” “enormous gravitas,” “great gravitas,” “tremendous gravitas”—as if mere “gravitas” alone is losing its cachet. Our suspicion is that “gravitas” will eventually sink of its own weight.
The word as defined in the Oxford English Dictionary means “weighty dignity; reverend seriousness; serious or solemn conduct or demeanour befitting a ceremony, an office, etc.; staidness.” But by the mid-20th century it was used more widely to mean “seriousness or sobriety (of conduct, bearing, speech, temperament, etc.); opposed to levity and gaiety.”
And it doesn’t always refer to people and their behavior. Here’s the current definition in Merriam-Webster: “high seriousness (as in a person’s bearing or in the treatment of a subject).”
As for its etymology, the noun was borrowed in the late 1800s from the Latin gravitas, which primarily meant weight in its physical sense, but was also used figuratively to mean weightiness or seriousness. The noun comes from the Latin adjective gravis (heavy, important).
It’s interesting that the word “gravity” itself, which came into English in 1509, first meant seriousness or solemnity. It was “introduced in figurative senses, corresponding generally to the English senses of the adjective [grave],” the OED says. “The primary physical sense of the Latin word came into English first in the 17th cent.”
Similarly, when “gravitas” first appeared in English writing in the late 19th century (usually italicized), it had the figurative rather than the literal meaning of its Latin ancestor.
Initially, English speakers may have used “gravitas” as a substitute for the serious meaning of “gravity,” which by then was commonly used in its scientific sense.
In its earliest uses, both American and British, “gravitas” referred to a character trait admired by the Romans.
The oldest use we’ve found is from a humorous poem: “The gravitas that marked a Roman / Methinks will never find a home in / Our versatile and jovial Harry” (from The Epitome, 1887, an annual publication by students at Lehigh University in Bethlehem, PA).
The next appeared in London: “He is a man exceptionally endowed with that gravitas which the Romans used so much to desiderate in character” (St James’s Gazette, March 18, 1897).
And this early 20th-century example is from an American magazine: “But many of these have what President Roosevelt has not—namely, that noble old Roman virtue, gravitas” (Current Literature, November 1904).
The OED’s earliest citation is mid-1920s British: “He never sheds a certain Roman gravitas” (The Manchester Guardian Weekly, Oct. 20, 1924).
And we found this example from that same year in an Australian newspaper’s eulogy for a headmaster: “When, indeed, did anyone … embody such gravitas, such dignity, such fortitude, such independence, such justice, such contempt for all that is unworthy and dishonourable? Temperamentally he was more an antique Roman than an Englishman” (The Morning Bulletin, Rockhampton, Queensland, Dec. 30, 1924).
Only since the mid-20th century has “gravitas” been applied to serious things and ideas rather than to people. These two OED citations illustrate the wider use of the term:
“A certain gravitas in the atmosphere of the Scottish universities” (The Spectator, May 30, 1958) … “Its leading articles, and even its news coverage, will have a superb Victorian gravitas” (The Times, London, Aug. 2, 1961).
The noun, which is almost never italicized today, is only the latest in a long list of English words derived from the Latin adjective gravis and its prehistoric source—an ancient Indo-European root reconstructed as gwerə– (heavy).
The American Heritage Dictionary of Indo-European Roots (2nd ed.), by Calvert Watkins, says the root gwerə– produced not only the Latin gravis but also the Sanskrit element guru- (heavy, venerable), the Greek words βαρύς (barus, heavy) and βάρος (baros, weight), the Latin brutus (heavy, cumbersome), and the Celtic elements brig-o- (strength) and brig-a- (strife).
These eventually gave English the words “grief,” “grieve,” “gravid,” “guru,” “aggravate,” “aggrieve,” “baritone,” “barium,” “isobar,” “brio,” “brigade,” “brigand,” and “brigantine,” in addition to “gravity,” “gravitas,” and the adjective “grave.”
And by the way, the noun “grave,” for a burial place, has entirely different origins. Its prehistoric source is an Indo-European root reconstructed as ghrebh- (dig, bury, scratch), according to Watkins. Ancient Germanic descendants of this root ultimately gave English not only the noun “grave” but also “engrave,” “gravure,” “groove,” the adjective “graven,” and the verb “grub.”
Thus the two English words “grave,” both of which have an air or solemnity, came into the language from different directions.