Daily Archives: 14 November 2009

What does fortuitous mean?

Me and the dictionaries I have to hand all agree on the answer to that question, though the Macquarie Dictionary, Third Edition, does take a moment to editorialise. Having defined the word as an adjective meaning ‘happening or produced by chance; accidental’, it goes on:

Usage: Strictly speaking, fortuitous means `happening by chance’, whether to one’s advantage or not. But the similarity with fortunate leads many writers to use the word only when referring to good luck.

That is to say the word has a clear meaning but it’s often used – carelessly or in an uninformed way – to mean something else.

I suppose that’s the way the language changes, and this is a word, like disinterested, that’s keeping its particular meaning only among people who care, but generally being treated as if it’s a slightly pompous variation of a more common word.

But what are we to make of this, which prompted this post? It’s from a respectable academic publisher, in a literary-award winning book that generally uses recognisable English.

EPSON001

In case you can’t read it, the first paragraph begins, ‘Whoever had created Australia, white men were certain that “this land of promise” belonged to them. It seemed fortuitous that the original inhabitants appeared destined to fade away before the superior forces of civilisation and progress.’

I can’t make any sense out of that second sentence, even if fortuitous is being used in its careless sense. Can something both seem to be caused by chance and seem to be destined? If the original inhabitants are – or are to ‘appear’ – to be wiped out by superior forces, surely chance doesn’t come into it.

Honestly, I’m not just being snarky here. I really did stumble over this, worrying that the writer (and the co-author, and the book’s editors and the proofreader*, and the award judges) knew something about the word that I didn’t. Having looked up a number of dictionaries and style guides, I’m now pretty much persuaded that the word has simply been misused, as a rough equivalent of good.

[Maybe I should have read on to the start of the next paragraph – ‘In fact, the Aboriginal population had already been decimated by the rapidity of dispossession in Victoria’ – before going to so much trouble. But the battle to keep the original meaning of decimate is by now long lost.]
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* Or, as I saw in the credits of a magazine in an osteopath’s waiting room today, proffreader.