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

7 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Jim Ruebush
    Dec 21, 2015 @ 17:25:31

    The general population is littered with many credulous people. Many don’t even need credible evidence. I heard them described as living in evidence-free zones.


  2. shoreacres
    Dec 22, 2015 @ 09:59:02

    If I were one of my friends, I’d say this is an awesome post: “awesome” being another word that’s suffered that attrition you mention. She uses it for everything from fresh laundry to light traffic to an especially good salad.

    Instead, I’ll give you credit for straightening out some of the confusion that surrounds these words, and reminding me of an expression I used to hear: that something “strains credulity.” That’s a slippery expression, a neat combination that feels like a negative modifying a positive. It reminds me of “suspension of disbelief,” another phrase that confused me mightily when I first met it.


    • Steve Schwartzman
      Dec 22, 2015 @ 11:16:57

      Thanks for your awesome comment, in which I’ll credit you with the word credit and those expressions that mix positives and negatives (if only language were as tidy and regular as mathematics).

      Another word in the category of awesome is amazing, a staple in television commercials. One standard bit of advice is: if a commercial says amazing, incredible, or breakthrough, don’t buy the product.


  3. Maria F.
    Dec 22, 2015 @ 21:32:22

    I don’t use the word ‘incredible’ at all, neither in English nor Spanish. I use ‘amazing’, or ‘innumerable’, or ‘cuantioso’ in Spanish.


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©2011–2016 Steven Schwartzman
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