In a Word: A (Half-)Mountain of Mediocrity

The word ‘mediocre’ finds its roots in a millennia-old metaphor.

A tired mountain hiker takes a break.

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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.

From fast food drive-throughs to ill-planned podcasts to the newest copycat reality show, it sometimes seems like we’re surrounded by mediocrity. Today, we only grudgingly accept the mediocre, but there was a time, long ago, when a statement like “surrounded by mediocrity” wasn’t only not defeatist but was practically tautological.

Mediocrity — the word at least — hasn’t changed much since the days of the Caesars. It came to English through Middle French médiocrité (as well as its adjective form, médiocre), but it traces back to the Latin mediocris, meaning “middling, ordinary,” much as mediocre does in Modern English.

Behind mediocris, however, is a metaphor. The word was formed from compounding medius, meaning “middle” or “half” (and the source of the word medium) and ocris “jagged mountain.” Mediocris describes someone who is halfway up the mountain. And you can see how that could easily lend itself to metaphor: Something mediocre is not at the top, but not at the bottom either, just somewhere in the middle.

Though the definition of mediocre has changed little over the centuries, its connotation has soured a bit. There was a relatively short time in mediocre’s early life in the English language when “the Golden Mediocrity” was an acceptable alternative to “the Golden Mean,” that sweet spot between two extremes. Mediocre just meant “middling, ordinary, average” without the negative connotations.

Today, mediocre is a purely qualitative adjective: You might order a medium coffee, but never a mediocre one. And in a world where we always expect the best, mediocre is often just a euphemism for “bad” or “unenjoyable.”

Featured image: Shutterstock

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Comments

  1. The guy in the opening picture sitting on a rock at the edge of a cliff or a deep/steep hill (somewhere in Europe?) being so sleepy, has made a bad decision flirting with an unenjoyable outcome of falling off of it. Mediocre is actually more kind than it is mean.

    It’s sort of like a ‘C’ grade in school. It’s not bad, but there’s room for improvement. It’s kind of hopeful; really depending on the situation. The more that I think about it, the more I realize the word isn’t used much anymore. It’s probably because everything is so divisive and extreme today in general, with little to no middle ground, that it wouldn’t be.

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