Friday, 9 May 2014

Chronic - Calling Time on an Acutely Misused Word

A clock
This is a clock. Because chronic relates to time. Therefore it's fitting.
(photo by Kyle Steed)


Adjective & noun. Late Middle English.
[French chronique from Latin chronicus from Greek khronikos of or pertaining to time, from khronos time.]

A1(a) adj. Of a disease etc.: lingering, lasting, of slow progression and often gradual onset. Compare with acute. LME

A1(b) adj. Of an invalid: suffering from a chronic illness. M19

A2 adj. generally. Continuous, constant, inveterate. M19

A3 adj. Bad, intense, severe. colloquial. E20

B elliptical as noun. A chronic invalid, sufferer, etc. M19

Oh my! I do try not to get on my high horse about the way people misuse words, but chronic ... please! ... the use of chronic is so (ahem) chronically chronic because, yes, some people do use chronic in that way, to mean really bad, as in: "Manchester United have been chronic this season," or "Paul's cold is chronic." Urgh. I take it back. For this one, I'm quite happy to climb right up onto my high horse and gallop it all around the stupid stables, because using chronic in this way is just so breath-takingly, muscle-spasmingly ignorant and nonsensical that one can do nothing but feel the ardent ire of righteous lexical indignation welling deep inside.

And yes, I know, the OED does concede that chronic is used in this way, as does Collins and Chambers (though, curiously, not Merriam-Webster, which makes me wonder if this is specifically a British problem). This, however, is no excuse, as dictionaries only reflect a word's use, rather than sanctioning the validity of any particular application. And you can just feel the reluctance from those dictionaries, the depressed sense of "Well OK ... we're putting this in for the sake of all the idiots out there, but we're not happy about it, and we're stuffing it with qualifiers such as colloquial, informal, nonsensical, illiterate, etc." (OK, no dictionary qualified it with nonsensical or illiterate, but I bet they wanted to.)

So, let's knock this on the noggin right now - chronic relates to time, and is thus related to such words as chronological, chronograph, chronology, etc. Therefore, if you have a chronic cough, you have a cough that persists over an extended period of time, with no specification as to the severity. If, however, you have a short, intense fit of coughing (regardless of how bad), that's not chronic, but rather acute. Or just bad; you can just have a really bad coughing fit, y'know.
Another clock
This is another clock. Because I'm now labouring the point.
(photo by William Warby Photography)

Do you confuse chronic, bad, really bad and acute?

As I'm sure that you don't, does it really get your goat when people do?

Do please leave your cutest long-term comments in the box below.


  1. Ha ha ha! I've never heard someone use chronic to mean bad. That's very funny!

    Are you going to ride on the high horse until "literally" or are you getting off before that? ;)

    1. No, I climbed on at 'altercation' and I won't be getting off until I'm completed Z at the very earliest.

      And, oh yes ... 'literally' will be getting a special Lexicolatrical mention when its turn comes ...

  2. I think it's literally a chronic problem!

    1. Ironically (and that's another one that I'll be getting to eventually), I think your use of both 'literally' and 'chronic' was perfectly proper in this sentence, Jingles.

      Of course, from you I'd expect nothing less.

      Are you winding me up? : o )

  3. Wow. I'd literally never made the connection between chronic and chronological. Once again Ed, lexicolatry has literally blown my mind. In my nonsensical illiterate ignorance I assumed that "chronic fatigue syndrome" meant really bad tiredness.
    I'm literally never going to misuse this word again.
    I think its time for a chronic lie down.

    1. I'm literally (not metaphorically, figuratively or metaphysically) very happy that Lexicolatry was of service to you, A.N.

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