adj. of questionable authenticity; specious
William Safire defined this word in his weekly New York Times column, On Language, when questioning a possible origin of the phrase “Location, location, location.” He defined the word to mean “of questionable authenticity.” The definition seemed reasonable (I later found it was straight from the O.E.D., but something didn’t sit right with me. Often I’ve said that something was apocryphal when I’ve meant that it was untrue. Safire’s definition seems to suggest that the word means something is questionably true. This is a major difference.
So, I did some basic dictionary hunting. Dictionary.com, which draws from the Random House Dictionary, offers “of doubtful authorship or authenticity” as its first definition. As its third, it “false; spurious.” This suggests a difference between the actual definition and the common use definition.
The Oxford American Dictionary (via my desktop widget) offers “of doubtful authenticity, although widely being circulated as being true.” It then directed me to an interesting note under spurious, listing the fine distinction between several words meaning false or not what they appear. It stressed: for something to be apocryphal it must be widely distributed but is still of doubtful origins.
It didn’t look very good for my definition of apocryphal as false. However, continued search seemed to support me. Merriam-Webster online had a strange and contradictory entry “of doubtful authenticity: spurious.” I found this problematic because spurious, by its own definition, means “of falsified or erroneously attributed origin.” There is no doubt involved. The O.E.D. is a little less vague, offering both of doubtful authenticity and spurious as definitions with a semi-colon, not a colon in between.
Additionally, the Latin origin of the word, apochryphus, was defined by Whitaker’s Words, as “spurious, not genuine/canonical.” The Greek origin, according to Wikipedia, simply means “those having been hidden away,” casting no judgment as to whether or not their is truth to it.
The earliest usages of the word tacked in the O.E.D. come from the late 16th/early 17th century (oddly late, I thought), and they all imply little doubt that something apocryphal is false, to the point that it is almost fantastic or delusional.
I could go on, but the point is that there appears to be no clear consensus about the actual meaning of this word. Although it is not quite an auto-antonym, the word does not give a very clear impression of its own meaning. How sad.