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  • Paul Anthony Jones


(adj.) of only average quality, not particularly good or impressive

Mountain climber scaling a vertical peak in misty conditions

Undoubtedly one of the most interesting etymological stories out there popped up on the HH Instagram today: the fact that mediocre literally means “halfway up a mountain”.

How and why? Well, at the root of the word mediocre is the Latin ocris, meaning “a jagged or sharp-edged mountain”. Through the twists and turns of the etymological labyrinth, ocris in turn derives from its Greek equivalent, okris, meaning “peak” or “point”, which is turn derives from the same ancient root as equally sharpened words like acerbity, acidity, acrimony, exacerbate and the rather brilliant botanical term aciculiform, meaning “needle-shaped.”

Added to ocris is the Latin medius, meaning “middle”. It might literally mean “halfway up a mountain,” then, but the figurative sense of mediocre was quick to establish itself. Even back in its native Latin, mediocris was used to refer to anything or anyone of middling rank or quality, and it was this sense that was carried into English when the word first emerged (borrowed via French) in the sixteenth century.


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