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Egregious, Jack Sparrow and my French teacher

Johnny Depp – as Jack Sparrow – is almost certainly the only actor in a Hollywood blockbuster ever to have pronounced the word ‘egregious’. I noticed this, because the word has been etched into my brain ever since a sardonic French teacher scribbled it at the bottom of some homework of mine. The word itself is, or should be, used only to describe utterly appalling actions or individuals (‘an egregious dictator’, for example, or ‘an egregious injustice’), the idea being that whatever it is stands out as a model of unspeakable awfulness.

For this reason, I was surprised when an Italian friend of mine described a teacher he had studied under as egregious. This could arguably have been an appropriate, if hyperbolic, usage, were it not for the fact that he was describing how fantastic this particular teacher had been. After talking at cross purposes for a few minutes, we worked out that the Italian egregio is the mirror-image of the English egregious: it has a similar sense of exceptional, but for good reasons rather than bad, as in the formal letter opening ‘Egregio Signore‘.

The etymology is, of course, Latin, and rather satisfactory. It comes from grex, meaning herd or flock (from which word we also have gregarious), and the original meaning is simply one who stands out from the crowd. In English it seems that the pejorative sense began to predominate in the 1700s, whilst in Italian the positive connotation has cemented itself over time: thus, despite the fact that the two words have the same etymology and the same root sense, they are now diametrically opposed in meaning.

My friend and I generally communicate in English, and I have noticed that he is extremely good at intuiting which Italian words he can ‘anglicise’ and get away with, even if he occasionally misses his target (auto-proclamating instead of boastful is my favourite.) This effectively means that my friend speaks a rather arcane, highly Latinised English, and at times he ends up sounding like a medieval theologian. As this example shows, however, it is often the most apparently self-evident translations which cause you to slip up.

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