Q: The editor of The Bridge World is more of a stickler than I, but the magazine recently used “fortuitous” in the sense of “fortunate,” a usage that I consider unfortunate: “Levine’s initial pass had the fortuitous effect of putting him on lead against three notrump.” Do you condone this?
A: The adjective “fortuitous” meant “accidental,” not “fortunate,” when it entered English more than 350 years ago, but it has evolved over the last century to describe a fortunate accident as well as a mere accident.
As Pat explains in Woe Is I (4th ed., 2019), her grammar and usage book, “those notions of good fortune and chance have blended so much that dictionaries also accept a hybrid definition—something fortuitous is a lucky accident.”
All ten standard dictionaries that we regularly consult—five American and five British—accept that new sense of the word. In fact, three of the dictionaries list it as the only sense. And that’s the meaning of “fortuitous” in that passage from The Bridge World.
We’d add that this serendipitous sense is now so common that we generally avoid using “fortuitous.” If we use it for something that’s just accidental, we’re likely to be misunderstood. And if we use it for a happy accident, we’ll stir up the sticklers. It’s now in what a reader of the blog has described as a never-never land.
As for the etymology, English adopted “fortuitous” in the 17th century from the Latin fortuitus (accidental, casual). The Oxford English Dictionary’s entry, which hasn’t been fully updated since 1897, has only one definition: “That happens or is produced by fortune or chance; accidental, casual.”
The dictionary’s earliest example is found in a treatise opposing atheism: “This Argument against the fortuitous concourse of Atoms.” From An Antidote Against Atheism, or an Appeal to the Natural Faculties of the Minde of Man, Whether There Be Not a God (1653), by the English philosopher Henry More.
The hybrid sense of “fortuitous” to describe a happy accident began appearing in the early 20th century, according to a usage note in Merriam-Webster online. The dictionary says, “the fact that ‘fortuitous’ sounds like a blend of ‘fortunate’ and ‘felicitous’ (meaning ‘happily suited to an occasion’) may have been what ultimately led to a second meaning.”
“That use has been disparaged by critics, but it is now well established,” M-W adds. “Perhaps the seeds of the newer sense were planted by earlier writers applying overtones of good fortune to something that is a chance occurrence. In fact, today we quite often apply ‘fortuitous’ to something that is a chance occurrence but has a favorable result.”
The earliest example we’ve seen for the hybrid sense showed up in a usage manual at the turn of the 20th century. In a list of questionable citations “from New York newspapers for the most part,” the book includes this passage: “The change of system is considered fortuitous [fortunate] at this time.” From Word and Phrase: True and False Use in English (1901), by Joseph Fitzgerald.
But as you know, this sense of “fortuitous” has been used by many respected writers since the mid-20th century. Here are a few from Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage:
“We have a great and fortuitous advantage, for if there is nothing the Kremlin wants more than to rule the world, there is nothing the United States wants less than to rule the world” (Call to Greatness, 1954, by Adlai Stevenson).
“The circumstance was a fortuitous one for Abraham Lockwood” (The Lockwood Concern, 1965, by John O’Hara).
“She panted into the underground, snatched a ticket from the machine, belted down the stairs, and there was a fortuitous train” (The Good Terrorist, 1985, by Doris Lessing).