It’s difficult to pin down exactly when this neutral “standing out” connotation of “outstanding” gave way to the meaning “exceptionally good,” as the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) defines the sense. The earliest citation the current edition of the OED provides that clearly invokes this positive sense is from 1936 (“Your lawn tennis was outstanding; you were a magnificent boxer”), but the previous edition (1989) of the OED doesn’t list this positive sense at all. If I had to guess (and I guess I do) when the transition took place, I’d venture that it was a gradual process that really got going in the mid-20th century and spread through the mass media, particularly television advertising. The same shift of meaning, as you note, has affected “exceptional” as well as “remarkable,” both of which originally meant simply “not in the normal run of things” but now connote something more than likely to also warrant the adjectives “new,” “improved,” and “must-have.”

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1 comment on this post.
  1. John Castro:

    Dear Word Detective:
    I am trying to remember this word I once knew. I think I lost it because it is not an everyday word. It means something awe inspiring has happened but not in a good way. I use to think of it as a car accident. Seeing a car wreck is something you can’t turn away from but then you hope every one is okay. Or something catastrophic has happened. Maybe you see an atomic mushroom cloud and you are awed by it but then you think of all the devastation.

    Please help me find this word (can you email me)

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