A sentence in today’s NY Times story about the Massachusetts Supreme Court caught my eye: “Several legal experts said all seven justices were highly qualified, and that Justice Sosman and Chief Justice Margaret H. Marshall, in particular, were known for their sharp and probative intelligence.” How do people feel about this use of probative (where I would use probing)? Merriam-Webster’s gives as a first definition “serving to test or try: exploratory,” and I presume they take this from the OED’s “Having the quality or function of testing; serving or designed for trial or probation; probationary. Now rare.” But the OED’s last citation is from a couple of centuries ago, and I’ve never seen the word used in any other way than Webster’s second definition (chronologically, not in order of frequency of use): “serving to prove: substantiating.” This is the only meaning given, for instance, in Cassell’s, which does not bother with obsolete uses. So: is the Times wrong, or simply behind the times?


  1. I see velcro. Miles of it. Little grappling hooks of intent catching the eyes of comprehended meaning, each connection so trivial as to be immaterial; yet taken all together – that’s us, this, English.
    What puts those words behind us is they don’t get used. What keeps them here is that they do.
    Not that the writer in the NYT was intentionally bringing “probative” forward that little step. More likely it went in because it sounded legally nuanced.
    Just so the language shifts, in millipedian instance.

  2. Legally nuanced? Yes – and pretentious. The way most unnecessary Latinate words creep in: we want to sound more educated than we are. But I’m with Orwell (even if I don’t always follow his advice), clearest is always best.

  3. Grammatically correct usage isn’t the same as grammatically accurate usage. The tangent that interests me is how that difference shifts through time.
    Words don’t come out of books, they go into books. They come out of speech, often playful speech. The language advances through play, serious or light.
    One of the risks of public play is the confusing splat of a following comment which, while it purports to be all about clarity, uses a pejorative which may be applied to the original subject or to the previous comment, or both, without ever precisely making it clear which.

  4. I can’t see it as a synonym for “probing,” even according to Webster’s first definition. Closer to “tentative.” Maybe the writer really was using it in the second, current sense? Saying that these justices had an intelligence which served to prove and substantiate (their legal opinions)?
    Hard to know. And that, for me, would be reason enough to strike it from the sentence. I don’t see that the writer buys anything with this usage that’s worth the puzzlement it costs.

  5. Nell Lancaster says

    I’m inclined to agree with Dave — it’s pretentious. But it does make some sense as applied to Supreme Court judges, who presumably use their intelligence in a testing way.
    Another example of this kind of creeping Latinflation is the use of “normative” when “normal” would do.

  6. I assume you’re objecting only to the use of “normative” to mean the same thing as “normal”; it has, of course, its own perfectly good meaning, which I have employed in a new entry based on David’s “bring em back” comment above.

  7. all those dead words
    crying for resurrection
    bring em back, bring em back.

  8. Probative does seem to have a law-specific meaning. The OED’s second definition is “Having the quality or function of proving or demonstrating; affording proof or evidence; demonstrative, evidential,” and it includes a usage example from a 1972 law journal. (See also the excess of law-related documents that are returned for this simplistic search.)
    I’d suggest that the word is being used as an awkward equivalent of demonstrated, something akin to “[they] were known for their sharp and proven intelligence.” Or, perhaps, if you want to follow American Heritage’s definition: “[they] were known for…intelligence that furnished proof of itself.”
    That’s hardly elegant. Which only proves that this bit of legal jargon should have been dumped.

  9. My own unfavourite latinism is “substantive” for “substantial”. Because, for me, a “substantive” is a “noun”. I don’t care if it is correct, it’s still pretentious and fugly.
    Somewhere, Le bourgeois gentilhomme plays on.

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