Pertinent & Impertinent

The whistleblower’s conundrum.

Dear Word Detective: What’s the connection, if any, between “pertinent” and “impertinent”? I’ve always used “pertinent” to mean “relevant” and “impertinent” to mean “disrespectful” or “insolent.” But shouldn’t “impertinent” simply mean “irrelevant”? — Rob, Miami, FL.

Hey, you’re right. It sure should. And life would be simpler if it did, because then we’d be using a language that builds all its words by snapping bits together, like building them out of Lego pieces. You snap a negative bit (im-, un-, non-, dis-, etc.) on the front of a word, and bingo, you’ve got its opposite. The English language actually has many words that work that way, “relevant” and “irrelevant” being a good example; “irrelevant” means simply “not relevant.” But there are many other cases where what seems to be a negative prefix (the “dis” in “disgruntled,” for instance) is actually playing a completely different role. In “disgruntled,” for instance, the “dis” in this case means “thoroughly.” So a “disgruntled” worker is extremely “gruntled,” an archaic term meaning “moved to grunting,” i.e., angry and dissatisfied.

The case of “pertinent” and “impertinent” illustrates yet another pitfall of the “Lego” school of etymology: where the prefix signaling negation (“im-“) does just what we expect it to by making “impertinent” mean “not pertinent,” but then the resulting “impertinent” wanders off and ends up meaning a whole lot more than simply “not relevant.”

“Pertinent” first appeared in Middle English, around 1390 in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, drawn from Anglo-Norman and Old French roots ultimately traceable to the Latin “pertinere” (“to be appropriate, suitable, relevant”). That was the original meaning of “pertinent” in English, and, apart from a legal sense of the word meaning “something belonging to an estate,” that’s pretty much the way we use “pertinent” today.

“Impertinent” also appeared in the late 14th century, based on the Latin “impertinens,” from “pertinens” (“belonging, relevant”) plus the negative prefix “im-” (a form of the more familiar “in-“). Its initial meaning in English was, predictably, “not belonging or relevant to” or “irrelevant.” But “impertinent” quickly broadened its meaning to encompass “not appropriate to the circumstances” (“Many ignorant practicioners … [have endeavored] to cure this infirmitie with many impertinent medicines.” 1583). By the 17th century, “impertinent” was being used to mean “irrational,” “absurd,” “trivial” and just plain “silly” (“For my part, I think a Woman’s Heart is the most impertinent part of the whole Body.” 1706).

Applied to specific people and their actions and attitudes, “impertinent” came to mean “meddling in things beyond their expertise or social station,” “intrusive or rude,” “showing lack of respect or proper manners,” and “behaving in a rude and insolent manner” (“He thought the stranger’s tone rather impertinent.” 1847). This is the sense most commonly heard today.

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