In a Word: The Obvious Way

An etymology that both is and isn’t obvious.


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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.

Two years ago, I wrote about “Word Origins So Obvious You Might Have Missed Them.” That title contains the subject of this week’s etymological exploration, a word whose history isn’t quite so, well, obvious — and whose etymological relatives might surprise you.

The English word obvious comes from the Latin adjective obvius, from the adverb obviam, which breaks down into two parts: ob “in front of or against” and viam, a form of the word via “way, road, path.” Obvius originally described something that was “in the way” — an obstacle (from a Latin word meaning “to stand against”).

But if something is literally in the road, and you travel down that road often, you see that obvious thing quite regularly. So before obvious found its way into English, obvius took on the extended sense of “exposed, commonplace.” And that roughly what obvious meant when it began appearing in English texts in the mid-16th century. The sense of “easily seen or understood” developed in English in the 17th century.

Words ending in -vious are not uncommon in English, and some of them also trace back to the Latin via, which means they’re etymologically related to obvious in a, ahem, not-so-obvious way. Here are a three common relatives:

  • previous: From prae “before” — it’s the way that was taken before.
  • devious: From de “off” — the English devious originally meant “out of the common or direct way” at the end of the 16th century, and only later took on the more metaphorical meaning of “deceitful.” The original root is still apparent in the verb deviate.
  • impervious: From in- “not” + per “through” — if something is impervious, (broadly speaking) you cannot get through that way.

Speaking of “three” relatives, another one is trivia, meaning “three ways,” a word I wrote in depth about in January of 2020.

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  1. A great follow-up feature to the one of two years ago. Unfortunately a big percentage of people are just that much dumber than they were then, obviously.


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