Ask Language Log: "Incredible"?

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Stephen Mendenhall asks:

That word is in the news again. Putin made an offer to Trump, to have US investigators visit Moscow, (and other stuff).

Trump thinks the offer is "incredible", meaning "good". Nobody else thinks the offer is "credible", so it's literally "incredible".

Does anybody use "incredible" to mean "not credible" any more? Do even police investigators use the word for its literal meaning?

The passage from the news conference in Helsinki:

Q: Who do you believe?
A: I have great confidence in my
intelligence people
but uh
I will tell you that
President Putin was extremely strong and powerful
in his denial today
and what he did is an incredible offer
he offered to have
the people working on the case
come and work with their investigators
with respect to the twelve people
I think that's an incredible offer, okay?

OED sense 1.b. for incredible is glossed as "Such as it is difficult to believe in the possibility of, or to realize; said esp. of a quantity, quality, number, etc., of a degree beyond what one would a priori have conceived as possible; inconceivable, exceedingly great." The entry dates from 1900, and citations for that sense start in 1482:

1482 Monk of Evesham 33 An inestymable and incredibulle swetenes of ioyfull conforte.
1559 W. Cuningham Cosmogr. Glasse 176 Ther are iij. mountaines of an incredible height.
1578 J. Lyly Euphues f. 19v Euphues was supprised with such increadible ioye at this straunge event, that hee had almost sounded.
1655 T. Fuller Church-hist. Brit. i. 28 It is incredible, how speedily and generally the Infection spread by his preaching.
1777 E. Burke Corr. (1844) II. 147 These stories do incredible mischief.
1856 E. K. Kane Arctic Explor. II. xiv. 144 Off they sprang with incredible swiftness.
1856 R. W. Emerson Eng. Traits i. 23 The incredible sums paid in one year by the great booksellers for puffing.

COCA has 15,750 instances of incredible (about 28 per million words). In a random sample of 100, I found no instances where incredible is used with the literal meaning of "not credible".  (There were no quotes from police investigators, though.)

There are certain (relatively rare) phrasal and social contexts where the literal meaning remains in use:

[link] The court found his testimony] "wholly incredible and untruthful"
[link] But the 45-year-old was locked up by a judge who rejected his excuse as 'wholly incredible'
[link] Rideout urged the judge to reject Mosher's testimony — saying it was "entirely incredible or very close to it" — and convict him of sexual assault

But looking at COHA, the first first four instances of incredible from the early 19th century are all literal:

1814: The story then is true; indeed, as related by the talkative old butler, it appeared wholly incredible.
1817: […] that so fundamental a privilege, in a country situated and enlightened as this is, should be invaded to the prejudice of the great mass of the people, by the deliberate policy of the government, without occasioning a popular revolution, is altogether inconceivable and incredible.
1821: In short, the assertion that all which is most striking in the natural and intellectual world, has been discovered and displayed by a few great masters, must be a maxim as incredible to those, who are not blinded by the splendid imagery, with which it is sometimes illustrated, as the Mahometan doctrine, that every thing worth knowing is comprised in the koran.
1822: And yet, there was said to be, though Harold had no opportunity of examining for himself, there was said to be, an appearance, as if the prow of a canoe had run ashore near the spot — and, at an incredible distance, the print of joined feet, and the proportions of a body, as if some one, of preternatural strength, had leaped, and fallen.

So there has apparently been a proportional shift in the direction of the "exceedingly great" meaning — this is unsurprising, since such semantic "bleaching" (with the residue simply some sort of intensification) is a common process. Examples in the history of English include very, really, terribly, awfully,  etc. etc.



22 Comments

  1. Cervantes said,

    July 18, 2018 @ 8:19 am

    I don't know if "anybody" still uses incredible to mean not believable. However, as a writer, knowing that the common meaning is now "extraordinarily good" I would not use it that way. I would say "not credible." It's not because I am unaware of the original meaning, it's because I'm writing for my audience, not to show off my knowledge of etymology.

  2. Ellen K. said,

    July 18, 2018 @ 8:40 am

    I would say an "incredible offer" is not the same as a "good offer". An incredible offer may be a good offer, but it may also may be a "too good to be true" offer. So an incredible offer may or may not be a credible offer.

  3. Rachael said,

    July 18, 2018 @ 8:45 am

    I've even heard people say things like "It was incredible, it was so believable." So ptresumably they don't have the literal meaning in their conscious mind while saying that.

  4. Bloix said,

    July 18, 2018 @ 9:31 am

    Does anyone still use it in its literal meaning? Yes. Lawyers and judges do.

    The Supreme Court last month:

    "[The defendant] claimed that the victims were killed by the local police and that he had been framed by a farflung conspiracy of state and federal officials,.. Unwilling to go along with this incredible and uncorroborated defense, [his attorney] told [the defendant] some eight months before trial that the only viable strategy was to admit the killings and to concentrate on attempting to avoid a sentence of death."
    McCoy v. Louisiana, 138 S. Ct. 1500, 1513 (2018)

  5. Bloix said,

    July 18, 2018 @ 9:49 am

    Other words that have undergone this sort of bleaching of their meanings and now mean "something I am pleased with" –
    good, great, fine, nice, remarkable, unbelievable, wonderful, brilliant (more in England than in the US), extraordinary, terrific.
    You can see the same process going on today with "disgusting' and "ridiculous."

  6. Bloix said,

    July 18, 2018 @ 9:52 am

    Oh, I see you discussed the legal usage – apologies for not reading carefully. But this is not rare – it is usual in discussing the credibility of witness testimony.

  7. Mark P said,

    July 18, 2018 @ 10:04 am

    Fred Kaplan writing for Slate seems to be using incredible to mean not believable: "Trump's revised version is completely incredible."

  8. David L said,

    July 18, 2018 @ 10:07 am

    If one reads — as I have been told some people do — newspaper advice columns, you will often find writer-inners referring to their boyfriends/girlfriends/partners as "incredible." Which would seem to be bad thing… (and in many case the substance of the complaint suggests it is a bad thing).

  9. Bloix said,

    July 18, 2018 @ 10:27 am

    David L – the word I've come to hate in descriptions of gfs/bfs is "amazing."

  10. Gregory Kusnick said,

    July 18, 2018 @ 10:36 am

    Many of the examples given here seem to require a modifier ("wholly incredible", "completely incredible") to mark the usage as literal.

    Even in the non-literal examples, the meaning in many cases seems to be not just "extraordinarily good" but "unexpectedly good" — i.e. so good it would be hard to believe if you had not experienced it. Which seems actually not all that far from the literal meaning.

  11. James said,

    July 18, 2018 @ 10:52 am

    Of course, 'unbelievable' has just the same ambiguity. So presumably this is not just a quirk of a particular lexical entry, but (maybe?) a semantically systematic property.

  12. Scott P. said,

    July 18, 2018 @ 11:30 am

    Interesting in that 'incredulity' seems not to have changed its meaning at all.

  13. Ferdinand Cesarano said,

    July 18, 2018 @ 12:04 pm

    There is a popular podcast called "The Men in Blazers", hosted by two extremely funny English expats living in the U.S., Roger Bennett and Michael Davies. It covers English football, European football, and also MLS.

    Bennett and Davies recently released an abridged audiobook of their new book called "Encyclopedia Blazertannica"; in this audiobook, they read sections of the work, and intersperse various comments. One of their comments was that ESPN has told announcer Ian Darke to avoid using the word "incredible" to describe an amazing occurrence during a match, on the grounds that "incredible" means "not believable".

  14. J.W. Brewer said,

    July 18, 2018 @ 2:13 pm

    I don't think "unbelievable" has shifted nearly as far through the transition as "incredible." I think that in most contexts "the witness's testimony was unbelievable" would not be at great risk of being interpreted as meaning the testimony was really really good. But "made an unbelievable offer" (to parallel the usage of "incredible" here) is a phrase I would avoid because of the serious risk of ambiguity unless tone of voice was going to disambiguate it. If writing with maximum self-awareness I would probably opt for "not credible" rather than "incredible" even in technical legal writing intended for a readership of judges and lawyers but I can't swear I've never used "incredible" in that context over the course of my career generating such technical writing.

    That the positive use of "unbelievable" and "incredible" seems rooted in salesman patter and sideshow-barker talk seems relevant here, given that Pres. Trump's oratorical style more closely resembles those genres than does that of the typical pol. (I should perhaps clarify that I mean that as a descriptive point and not necessarily as a normative condemnation.)

  15. David said,

    July 18, 2018 @ 3:27 pm

    Thirty-some years ago in the US, there was some brand of bubble gum whose advertising jingle ran "Tastes so unreal, it'll blow you away" — a perfectly undeniable product claim.

  16. Bloix said,

    July 18, 2018 @ 3:52 pm

    Vizzini: He didn't fall? Inconceivable!
    Inigo Montoya: You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.
    – The Princess Bride

  17. He said, she said,

    July 18, 2018 @ 5:00 pm

    Hey @James and @J.W. Brewer: Greg LeMond knows about this issue and used that knowledge. Here's an excerpt from an article in the Minneapolis Star Tribune:

    === === ===

    As Armstrong smashed LeMond's records, sports reporters continued to pester him, asking, "What do you think of Lance Armstrong?"

    "I came up with an answer I could use," LeMond said. "I'd just say, 'It's unbelievable. It's really unbelievable.' "

    === === ===

    Full article here:
    http://www.startribune.com/oct-26-2014-greg-lemond-breaks-his-silence/280231442/

  18. dainichi said,

    July 18, 2018 @ 6:25 pm

    Rephrasing "incredible" as "not credible" is sometimes not trivial. For example, for "completely incredible", "not completely credible" negates "completely" instead of "credible", and AFAIK "completely not credible" is marked in some registers, although possible in colloquial registers. In fact, I think that has something to do with why the literal meaning often collocates with modifiers, as Gregory Kusnick noticed.

  19. Ray said,

    July 18, 2018 @ 7:14 pm

    I always enjoy how knowledgeable english-speaking people hear the french "formidable" and "incroyable" and go from there, but don't. it's like how they do the italian "terrifico." because, something…

  20. Brett said,

    July 18, 2018 @ 8:11 pm

    I remember reading a review of the (first edition?) of the role-playing game based on Marvel Super-Heroes. The game did not give numerical ratings to characters' abilities, but rather categorized them using adjectives, including amazing and incredible. The reviewer commented that the game designers did not seem to put much thought into how they ordered the words, since amazing was a step higher than incredible, even though the literal meanings of the two words suggest the order should be other way around. Moreover, the Incredible Hulk is a more powerful character than the Amazing Spider-Man.

  21. Chas Belov said,

    July 19, 2018 @ 12:45 am

    I would consider using "uncredible" to mean "not credible."

  22. Ran Ari-Gur said,

    July 23, 2018 @ 12:34 am

    The phrase "literally incredible" still seems to mean "not believable".

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