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Portentous: A Shakespearean Favorite Lives On

Portentous is a word that reached peak popularity long before any of us were born, yet it has lived on in the pages of classic literature. In fact, portentous was a favorite of the great William Shakespeare. You may remember it from this line in Hamlet, when Barnardo speaks to Horatio: "Well may it sort that portentous figure/ Comes armed through our watch so like the King/ That was and is the question of these wars." And again in Julius Caesar, in a conversation between Casca and Cicero as they speak about strange happenings: "They are portentous things".

But you may not find many other uses for the word outside of revisiting your favorite reads. This isn't because portentous has gone out of style. You could blame its infrequency on a lack of understanding of its proper pronunciation and its true meaning, both of which have evolved over time.

Portentous first originated in the 1540s and was derived from the Latin word portentosus. The root of the word is portent, which is a synonym for a sign or an omen. When it was first created, portentous was mainly used in reference to omens. However, Merriam-Webster reports a second definition was born by the end of the centuryÔøΩ "extremely impressive". This definition is quite similar to that of our favorite word, prodigious. Some 300 years later, the definition changed once more to "grave, solemn, significant".

Today, portentous' definition is an amalgam of all its previous forms. The Dictionary of Contemporary English defines it as the following:

1. Showing that something important is going to happen, especially something bad;

2. Trying to appear important and serious.

For example, you could use portentous in the following manner: These conflicts are as portentous as the great Battle of Gettysburg. It's a powerful word that indicates significant, and often dark, events. But the second definition has led many to swap portentous for pretentious.

In terms of definition, the mistake can be forgiven. Pretentious, too, is defined as trying to appear important, but it's usually in relation to class or intelligence as opposed to just seriousness. The pronunciation is the aspect that causes constant mix-ups, and it's mainly due to how other words' pronunciations have changed through the years.

Portentous ends in � �tous, which has the phonetic spelling, -t… �s, and is pronounced -tuss. Words like pretentious and contentious end in � �ious, which is pronounced � �shuss. More and more, people started to pronounce portentous as though it was spelled portentious, simply because of the similarity in spelling. This is, of course, a mistake but serves as the biggest point of confusion surrounding portentous.

These days, you don't need to depend on classic literature to get your portentous fix. There are plenty of new media scribes keeping the word alive. AV Club's Randall Colburn used the word when describing Netflix's new ad campaign featuring the phrase, "Netflix is a joke," which was used to tease comedy specials from Jerry Seinfeld, Chris Rock, and Ellen DeGeneres. Dave Sheinin, of Valley News, used the word to describe Red Sox player David Price's injury-plagued 2017 season. And Vice's music outlet, Noisey, used portentous to describe the music of Perfume Genius. Even if the work is not of Shakespearean proportions, portentous is still a welcome addition.

It will be interesting to observe whether portentous' etymology evolves any further over time, or if it remains the same. Here's hoping those pronunciation troubles aren't as portentous as they seem.

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Read some of our other etymological posts:
Prodigious
Convalesce
Supersede