For at least the past decade, a typical speaker of English—especially a young one—has used the adjective incredible to describe something that the person likes or considers good. In the quantitative rather than qualitative realm, incredible can mean ‘much,’ and the corresponding adverb incredibly now most often functions in a similar way to mean ‘very.’ For example, a few hours after I prepared this post I came across an editorial in the daily newspaper that spoke about residents of east Austin “who have lived for generations in an area with incredible diversity.”
Compare the blandness of those usages to the definition of incredible in the 1913 Webster’s Revised Unabridged Dictionary: ‘Not credible; surpassing belief; too extraordinary and improbable to admit of belief; unlikely; marvelous; fabulous.’ For better or worse, the loss in strength of a word is not incredible, but a kind of attrition often observed in historical linguistics.
English incredible and Spanish increíble both trace back to Latin incrēdibilis, a compound that prefixes in- ‘not’ to the root of the verb crēdere, the forerunner of Spanish creer ‘to believe.’ From the same root we have crédulo/credulous, which the 1913 Webster’s defined as: ‘Apt to believe on slight evidence; easily imposed upon; unsuspecting.’ The negative, incrédulo/incredulous, describes a person ‘who is unwilling or unable to believe something.’ The DRAE‘s definition is ‘Que no cree con facilidad y a la ligera.’ Of course there’s no reason for you to be incrédulo/incredulous about the contents of this eminently credible post. You’re incredibly fortunate to have found it among the other incredible entries in this blog.
© 2016 Steven Schwartzman