Incredible: Astonishing Or Not To Be Believed?

astonished_incredibleIncredible: It’s one of the most used — and most overused, in my opinion — words in American English. As with many words in our confusing language, it has more than one meaning:

incredible: impossible to believe
– the definition of credible: able to be believed; convincing
– the meaning of the prefix in: not; it negates what follows

The meaning of incredible derives from the Latin credibilis (worthy of belief) + in (not) = incredibilis (something that cannot be believed).

Consider what the prefix in means in these words:

inability (lacking an ability) | inaccurate (not accurate) | inappropriate (not appropriate) | inaudible (can’t be heard) | incoherent (not coherent) | incomplete (not complete) | inconsolable (can’t be consoled) | inconvenient (not convenient) | indescribable (can’t be described) | indirect (not direct) | indispensable (not dispensable) | inedible (can’t or shouldn’t be eaten) | ineffective (not effective) | inefficient (not efficient) | insincere (not sincere) | insignificant (lacking significance) | insufficient (not sufficient)

Now consider these synonyms for incredible:

unbelievable, beyond belief, hard to believe, unconvincing, far-fetched, implausible, improbable, highly unlikely, dubious, doubtful, inconceivable, unthinkable, unimaginable, impossible

So when and how did incredible evolve to mean the opposite of its first definition? According to grammarphobia.com, it first began appearing with its positive connotation in Middle English in 1482.

incredible: difficult to believe; extraordinary

Consider these synonyms for incredible No. 2:

magnificent, wonderful, marvelous, spectacular, remarkable, phenomenal, prodigious, breathtaking, amazing, stunning, astounding, astonishing, awe-inspiring, staggering, formidable, impressive, supreme, great, awesome, terrific, tremendous

If there are two meanings for incredible and they are opposites, how are we to know which meaning a speaker or writer implies? By context or tone?

It was an incredible story.
Was the story magnificent, or was it lacking in credibility and thus not to be believed?

She turned out to be an incredible witness.
Was her testimony convincing, or was her testimony not believable?

The special effects in the dinosaur movie were incredible.
Were the special effects stunningly realistic, or were they obviously fake?

Your grandmother hiked to the bottom of the Grand Canyon? That’s incredible.
Was the claim unbelievable? Or was it astounding that Grandma apparently made the hike?

Is it any wonder that non-native speakers of English find it hard to master?

I don’t believe for a millisecond that I’m going to change or negate the use of incredible as something marvelous or awe-inspiring. It might even continue to slip from my lips now and then.

But I’m going to do my best to use better, less rote, less ambiguous descriptors.

A silly online calendar proclaims the second week of every month Pet Peeve Week. Do you have a grammar pet peeve? Please send it / them my way, and I’ll post them on Tuesday, October 13.

Meanwhile, have an incredible enjoyable day!

Kathy Watson
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Kathy Watson

Kathy has a love/hate relationship with grammar; she loves words and the punctuation that helps them make sense, yet she hates those pesky rules. A self-proclaimed ruthless editor, she prefers standard usage guidelines of The Associated Press Stylebook. Her easy-to-use Grammar for People Who Hate Rules helps people write and speak with authority and confidence. She encourages and welcomes questions and comments. (Email)

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Kathy Watson
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