The first time I noticed it was Rachel Maddow, enough years ago that I was still watching her show (so three or four, at least). Maddow is a Rhodes Scholar, so it caught my attention — my first thought was that I must be wrong about the word. I looked it up, and… I’m maybe slightly more right than wrong? Or, honestly, maybe it’s just a wash.
The word I’m talking about is craven.
Before I get to that, this:
If you’ve never seen The Princess Bride (1987), you’ve missed what has rightfully become a classic, well-loved, comedy. (A fantasy setting, so it ages okay.)
It may be that my love of books, of words and writing, creates a bias, but I’ve long felt movies based on books tend to tell better stories. It certainly depends on the quality and nature of the adaptation, but I think maybe books can provide better source material than starting from scratch.
I think books are harder than scripts because readers can stop and think, can easily turn back pages to check something, and can go look something up. Obviously, there are many conditions to this, and some kinds of movies really are just movies — they make for fairly crappy books.
My main point here is that you really should also read the original book, The Princess Bride (1973). One reason the movie is so good is that the book is so good, and the adaptation is also good.
That’s because (and this is an important lesson about artistic vision) the very talented William Goldman wrote both the novel and the screenplay.
In the movie, Inigo Montoya (played by the wonderful Mandy Patinkin) is referring to the word “inconceivable” (used frequently and incorrectly by the character Vizzini, played by the also wondeful Wallace Shawn).
The word today is craven. Here’s what dictionaries have to say:
Etymology 1: Middle English: from the Old French cravanté (“defeated”), from the Latin crepare (“to crack”, “creak”).
Adjective: craven (comparative: more craven, superlative: most craven)
1. Unwilling to fight; lacking even the rudiments of courage; extremely cowardly.
There is no second definition. However, down in the etymology section it does say:
Etymology 2: Middle English: from Old English crafian, indicating Proto-Germanic […] Danish kræve, Norwegian kreve, Swedish kräva (“to demand”).
1. desire; crave
So there is a basis for using it in the way most people seem to use it.
Which, to be clear, is as though craven meant to crave, but in a bad sort of way — greedy, underhanded, sneaky, deceitful.
1. lacking the least bit of courage : contemptibly fainthearted
e.g. “… craven mercenaries who would not fight …” (Thomas Fleming)
2. archaic : defeated, vanquished
So here again, the main definition involves cowardice, not a sense of craving. In fact, Merriam-Webster goes on to say:
Craven and its synonyms “dastardly” and “pusillanimous” are all basically fancy words for “cowardly.” […] “Craven” suggests extreme defeatism and complete lack of resistance.
I can see that Maddow may have used it in this sense, although she may have used it in the more common sense of to crave (in a bad way). From what she actually said, it’s impossible to tell.
extremely cowardly (= not brave): a craven act of terrorism
No alternate definition listed.
1. (adjective) cowardly; contemptibly timid; pusillanimous.
2. (noun) a coward.
Again, no alternate definition.
You get the point, I think. The word, craven, means cowardly.
It does have an element of acting contemptibly, and that might even be stretched into acting with desire (i.e. to crave), but I still think that’s a little bit of a stretch.
On the other hand, English is a living, dynamic language that evolves over time. It may well be that an increasingly common usage of the meaning to crave has shifted the original meaning the word.
I have to mention it seems to me, at the very least, an example of popular culture appropriating a term based on what it seems to mean. If one doesn’t have a love of words, it’s very easy to jump from “I crave” to a seemingly obviously interpretation of the word craven.
(Fans of Shakespeare would likely know otherwise, which is why I was a bit surprised to hear Maddow using it in what may have been this new common usage. I just assumed she knew her Shakespeare.)
((And just to emphasize the point, Maddow may well know exactly what it means. I am much more askance at how other journalists, and especially politicians, use it.))
In closing, I’ll also emphasize this is not a rant, I’m not calling for change, this is just a wry observation.
Language evolves, especially English, especially these fast-paced technological days, and it’s foolish to cling to old usage.
That said, I do wonder sometimes at the collapse of nuance. Language becomes both more simplified and more contextual. A lot of common communication requires knowing the lingo or knowing the cultural references (which tend to age badly).
If nothing else, go watch The Princess Bride. (Or read the book.) It’ll put a big smile on your face, and you’ll learn what all those quotes mean.
“Hello, my name is Inigo Montoya. You killed my father. Prepare to die.”
Stay inconceivable, my friends!