Managing editor and logophile Andy Hollandbeck reveals the sometimes surprising roots of common English words and phrases. Remember: Etymology tells us where a word comes from, but not what it means today.
You can be forgiven for seeing the word outrage as a compound of the common words out and rage. It’s not an outrageous assumption, especially given that, in today’s usage, outrage could be viewed as the outward expression of rage. But that’s not how the word came to be. In fact, rage didn’t figure into it at all in the beginning.
The word traces back to the Latin ultra, meaning “beyond.” In Old French this had evolved into the adverb outre, to which was added the suffix -age (as in advantage, language, and leverage) to create a noun. Etymologically, an outrage is something that passes beyond reasonable bounds.
This French outrage originally referred to “excess” (having beyond what is needed), but it also developed the sense of “an act of brutality” (going beyond the necessary amount of force and beyond the norms of society and civility).
When outrage was borrowed into Middle English in the 14th century, both the senses “lack of moderation” and “violent behavior” were in use. But probably because English speakers latched onto the apparent rage within the word, its evolution moved in a particular direction. When Noah Webster published his dictionary in 1806, he defined outrage as (noun) “violence, fury, tumultuous mischief” and (verb) “to injure greatly, to insult grossly” — with no reference to simple overindulgence or frivolous excess.
That violence and tumult moved ever inward during the puritanical 1800s such that outrage is now less about a physical act of violence than about one’s sense of feeling violated, though the old meanings still apply as well: You can feel outrage in reaction to an act that is itself an outrage.
Meanwhile the word outrageous entered English at about the same time — the 14th century. In the beginning, following the same path as outrage, it was an adjective referring either to something beyond normality or to something violent or unrestrained. But the rage is buried a bit deeper in that word, and so it didn’t journey so hard toward a violent sense in English.
Which is why something that causes an outrage can be outrageous, but so can a good party, a highly detailed Halloween costume, or a gaudy hat.
Incidentally, English wasn’t done with the French outre. By the early 17th century, Modern French outré had evolved the sense “excessive, extreme,” and English borrowed the word unaltered in the 1720s. Today, outré (often without the accent) is a fully English word that means “eccentric, extravagant.”
Featured image: Elnur / Shutterstock
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