Johnny Depp — as Jack Sparrow — is almost certainly the only actor in a Hollywood blockbuster to have used the word ‘egregious‘. I noticed this, because the word has been etched into my brain ever since a French teacher scribbled it at the bottom of my homework! 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’ — essentially, something that stands out as a model of awfulness.
For this reason, I was surprised when an Italian friend described a teacher he had studied under as egregious. This could arguably have been an appropriate, if hyperbolic, usage. Except 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. For example, as in the formal letter opening ‘Egregio Signore‘.
A pleasing etymology
The etymology is, of course, Latin, and rather pleasing. 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 the pejorative sense began to dominate in the 1700s. However, in Italian, the positive connotation 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. I have often noticed he is extremely good at intuiting which Italian words he can ‘anglicise’ and get away with. Although, 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!