Mind your language

Why ‘embolden’ is a word in a million — and it’s currently in vogue

29 September 2018

9:00 AM

29 September 2018

9:00 AM

Embolden is a word in a million. In other words it is quite common. Using data from Google Books, the Oxford English Dictionary has put it in a band of words that are used with a frequency of between 0.1 and 0.99 per million. About 11 per cent of words fall in this band. The most frequent words, in Band 8, occurring more than 1,000 times per million, are exemplified by the, he, and, from and some.

The only noun among these most common words is time. Embolden falls in Band 4, among words generally recognised by newspaper readers such as candlestick, rodeo and embouchure. A larger proportion, 20 per cent of words in the OED, come in the more difficult Band 3: words such as amortizable, prelapsarian and contumacious. The most difficult, in Band 1, still account for 18 per cent of words in the dictionary, examples being abaxile, grithbreach and zeagonite.


This is Call My Bluff territory. I have no scientific evidence, but a friend of my husband’s (he does still have one or two) says that emboldened is enjoying a vogue. I have certainly noticed it in the newspapers. Airport officials in Atlanta have apparently been emboldened (by Trump) to be nastier; a writer for the Times was emboldened (by friends) to go to a nudist beach; a law graduate has been emboldened (by the Equality and Human Rights Commission) to become the first gypsy barrister.

I read somewhere that the Novichok attack has ‘emboldened a lot of bad behaviour that we didn’t see before’. But it is usually people who are emboldened, as they have been since the 16th century. Emboldish, a rival to embolden (on the model of impoverish) never really got going.

It is possible to be emboldened to do harm, but bold has generally denoted virtue, although boldness may be reckoned presumptuous or forward, especially for women who are as bold as brass.

A peculiar development of the last 50 years in Philippine English is bold for films with sexual content. I don’t know if this has any connection with Julian and Sandy on Round the Horne in the 1960s, who often exclaimed: ‘Ooh, innee bold!’ at some innocent remark by their straight man, Kenneth Horne.

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