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.


One Response to Apocryphal

  1. John Kuhner says:

    I’m surprised the O.E.D. doesn’t do a better job with this. Must be the damned Protestants. “Apocryphal” to me denotes “hidden” – that’s the Greek meaning – the rest is user-implied connotation. The term specifically refers to the “Apocrypha,” the books of the Bible which Luther and other Protestants rejected. They’re still in the Catholic Bible. The most common scholarly reason for their rejection was that these books were unknown in Hebrew and hence not part of the “Hebrew Scriptures” – a situation which basically is no longer true, as Hebrew versions have subsequently been found of almost all the Apocrypha (Maccabees, Tobit, etc.). There were also doctrinal reasons, e.g. Tobit, which is one of the most beautiful books of the Bible, stresses the importance of burying and praying for the dead, which really cannot be justified by most Protestant theology and certainly not by those like the Calvinists who believed in Predestination.
    The original meaning of “hidden” is found in a lot of the early Christian writings, when many Christian groups thought “hidden” or esoteric books by their nature more appealing (hence there are books like “The Apocryphon of John”, purporting to be his secret teachings). This esotericism however was generally condemned by the Orthodox-Catholic movement in the Church, their take being that the Gospel was supposed to be “for all nations” and not for select cult initiates. Hence a “hidden” book became ipso facto suspicious; and the term was resurrected by Protestant Biblical scholars (out of the Church Fathers) to cast doubt on certain books of the canon. Luther wanted the letter of James out too, but couldn’t find good enough reason other than his own personal theology to do it.
    The leap from “hidden” to “uncertain” to “false” in the religious conversation is a sign of how priggish certainty became a hallmark of religious belief (see Religulous for an update on this problem). And obviously now when your college prof talks about “the apocryphal story of Washington and the cherry tree,” he just means that it’s not literally true, though of course many apocryphal stories, like many scriptural stories, contain their best truths on the non-literal level.
    The wikipedia article does a very nice job with this word.


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