The posting a few months ago that discussed the word segregar/segregate mentioned that the Latin noun grex, with stem greg-, meant ‘a flock, herd, drove, swarm’; it evolved to the synonymous Spanish grey. We have two adjectives based on the Latin original, one of which is gregario/gregarious. Someone who can be described that way enjoys being in the company of “swarms” of people.
The other word resulted from prefixing Latin ex ‘out of’ to the stem greg- to produce egregius, literally ‘[selected] out of the herd.’ The Romans used the word figuratively—and that seems to be the only way they used it—to mean ‘distinguished, excellent, eminent, illustrious, honorable.’ Spanish has carried those meanings over in egregio. English egregious originally had the same connotations, as seen in the first definition that Noah Webster gave in his American Dictionary of the English Language in 1828: ‘Eminent; remarkable; extraordinary; distinguished; as egregious exploits; an egregious prince. But in this sense it is seldom applied to persons.’
For whatever reason, the English version of the word turned and has remained negative; what was once ‘outstanding’ became ‘outstanding in a bad way,’ so that egregious now means ‘blatantly bad, flagrant, outrageous.’ In English, boys behaving badly engage in egregious behavior and in the process commit egregious mistakes. Si se me permite decirlo, este blog es egregio, but it isn’t egregious.
© 2011 Steven Schwartzman