An incredulous anachronism?

I was struck by this use of incredulous in an old trailer for the 1932 Universal Studios film The Mummy, starring Boris Karloff:

universal studios 1932 mummy trailer - incredulous

My first reaction was that it should be incredible – since incredulous means ‘unbelieving’ or ‘disbelieving’, not ‘unbelievable’ – but it seemed unlikely that such a ‘mistake’ would have slipped through unnoticed. So I looked it up.

Sure enough, incredulous used to also mean ‘incredible’, but the OED labels the sense obsolete. Its citations date from 1616 to 1750 (the first is from Twelfth Night: ‘no incredulous or unsafe circumstance’), and there’s an adverbial use from 1533 (‘incredulous quick’). The more familiar incredulous ‘unbelieving’ dates to at least 1578.

Given the apparently short attested life of incredulous ‘incredible’, it’s curious that the usage should show up in mainstream 20thC use – unless it didn’t really disappear in the mid-18thC. Browsing examples of incredulous on Google Books from 1751–1931, I found a single example out of the first 200:

Now the most incredulous thing, as it always appeared to me, is that the casket containing Mr. Lincoln’s remains stayed in that position for two years. (Journal of the Senate of the General Assembly of the State of Iowa, Vol. 42, 1927)

I also came across a letter on the subject to the editor of the Correct English and Current Literary Review, from 1905:

I wish you would kindly inform me whether the sentence, “It seems incredulous to me that you could be so negligent in this respect,” is correct: or, is “incredible” the proper word to use? Please give reasons.

All other examples were of incredulous meaning ‘unbelieving’. Even allowing for repeats, of which there were a few, the proportion is telling.

To answer the letter writer: I would say incredible is the more proper word, because it is fully standard, whereas incredulous in that context was not then in common or reputable usage; its acceptability would have declined in tandem with its use.

The Columbia Guide to Standard American English (1993) says incredulous meaning unbelievable was ‘Standard until about two hundred years ago, but not today, except humorously as a malapropism’. Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage concurs, finding that the usage was ‘once in good repute’:

But this sense of incredulous had fallen into disuse by the end of the 18th century. Its reappearance in recent years has been sporadic, although there are signs that the usage may be growing more widespread.

It offers a few modern examples (e.g., from People and ESPN.com) but implies that it is not standard, and recommends that incredulous be restricted to the ‘disbelieving’ sense. Whether the ‘incredible’ use of incredulous in the trailer for The Mummy was anachronistic, or meant as a humorous malapropism, or something else, I can’t say for sure.

Here’s the trailer in full:

10 Responses to An incredulous anachronism?

  1. We have enough adjectives to sub for ‘incredible.’ I prefer to keep ‘incredulous’ for times when I am the non-believer.

    • Stan Carey says:

      Me too, bluebird. I tend to avoid incredible and unbelievable too, except when something really is hard to believe. As inflated (and ubiquitous) synonyms for ‘remarkable’ or ‘impressive’, I don’t care for them.

  2. Vinetta Bell says:

    Good afternoon, Stan!
    Recently, I (re)read some stories (in order: The 39 Steps, plus summary of the Hitchcock film version of that story; The Man Who Was Thursday; The Invisible Man; and Frankenstein (probably the 1831 or 1832 amended version, not its original 1818 text) that fit the horror of “The Mummy” tale that is the subject of your latest post. I’m guessing that the use of “incredulous” in the trailer for “The Mummy” is probably meant for effect (think Edgar Allan Poe), not necessarily solely for grammatical correctness. Certainly, the clip you posted parallels Victor Frankenstein’s monster’s unfulfilled desire for a suitable bride. While reading Frankenstein, I thought of you, Stan, not because I think you are kin to Victor Frankenstein but because of the language Mary Shelley used and the negative characterizations of Ireland (or Irish people) that are included in that tale. Your search for the historical usage of “incredulous” reveals your scientific training and your sustained attempts to be objective in your postings, not just opinionated in your observations. Thanks!

    • Stan Carey says:

      You’re most welcome, Vinetta, and thank you for the thoughtful comment. It’s possible that the Mummy trailer used incredulous for effect – but I wonder what kind of effect exactly was intended, and what kind was achieved? The usage doesn’t seem to have been in common use around that time, at least not in edited texts. Maybe it lent an old-world feel to the clip, but was that at the risk of censure or was it unremarkable? I don’t know enough about the history to be at all conclusive.

      Shelley’s Frankenstein is an old favourite, by the way, but I had quite forgotten her characterisation of Irish people. That could be just as well. :-)

  3. Pauntley Roope says:

    What a happy inspiration, Stan, for morning reflection. Words do go their own way, unstoppably. People can look incredulous, as well as be incredulous. And they can look credulous too. It’s a familiar facial expression – slack mouth unfocussed eyes. The witness can look credible, as she takes the oath. (Though some jurors may look incredulous.) But looking incredible is something else again.

    • Stan Carey says:

      What a pleasing assortment of reflections, Pauntley. It’s fascinating how all the different strands of a given root gather meanings and connotations of their own as they drift through usage, never stopping until they stop being used entirely.

  4. astraya says:

    ‘its acceptability would have declined in tandem with its use’

    Which comes first, the chicken of acceptability or the egg of use?

    • Stan Carey says:

      Indeed! I guess in most cases a decline in usage (for whatever reason) leads to a fall in perceived acceptability, which in turn discourages use. So it could be thought of as a feedback loop with, in this case, mutual inhibition. But it’s not a straightforward cause/effect.

  5. pep says:

    This reminds me of those Romance adjectives that can describe both ‘a person who suffers from’ and ‘a thing that causes something’, like Catalan “angoixós”:
    http://www.diccionari.cat/lexicx.jsp?GECART=0008722

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