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NOAD defines *vouchsafe*as

verb [ with two objs. ]
give or grant (something) to (someone) in a gracious or condescending manner: it is a blessing vouchsafed him by heaven.
• [ with obj. ] reveal or disclose (information): you'd never vouchsafed that interesting tidbit before.

Aren't "gracious" and "condescending" antonyms?

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up vote 5 down vote accepted

Aren't gracious and condescending antonyms?

Not originally. Indeed, it remains that one meaning of to condescend is to forgo rank or privilege and join people "below" you as equals.

This was so often used ironically, of someone acting as if they were talking to an inferior, that it became the predominant sense.

Vouchsafe underwent the same partial change, and can mean either bestowing something from a superior position (which would be a graceful act), or else as if from a superior position. So it can be used both to match the old sense of condescend, or the new.

The really confusing sense, is that sometimes people talk of "vouchsafing prayers to God", which matches neither sense. My guess is that it's a matter of people only knowing vouchsafe from religious contexts (God is often vouchsafing, or being asked to vouchsafe something, in religious writing) understanding that it means "give", but not understanding the implied imbalance of the transaction.

Edit: Or another possibility is it was originally from asking saints to vouchsafe to intercede with God, on the matter of the prayer, among those denominations that believe in intercession of saints. Still no more than a guess.

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+1 for historical context. I had no idea that "condescend" did not used to be condescending. –  terdon Jan 29 '13 at 23:10
    
@terdon condescend still isn't always condescending, and can be condescending. It's much rarer now, though, and normally condescend is only condescending, these days. –  Jon Hanna Jan 29 '13 at 23:37
    
@terdon Condescension is like charity, which bears the same double sense. Both sorts of action are contemptible only when being seen to perform is more significant than the performance itself. –  StoneyB Jan 30 '13 at 2:55
    
Re that last paragraph - Shakespeare used "vouchsafe" several times, the last one in that list being "Vouchsafe my prayer" from The Tempest. It would be a bad guess indeed that supposes we know better than Shakespeare how he "should" be using the word! –  FumbleFingers Jan 30 '13 at 5:45
    
@FumbleFingers That clearly marks my guess as wrong, and also makes it all the more interesting. –  Jon Hanna Jan 30 '13 at 9:06
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Yes they are antonyms, the opposite of each other. The description of vouchsafe says, as you've stated, 'in a gracious OR condescending manner,' so one or the other.

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The trouble is that the next usage of or by NOAD is the not-so-contrastive one: reveal or disclose. –  Edwin Ashworth Jan 30 '13 at 17:39
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Yes they are. The difference here is in how vouchsafe is used. If something were vouchsafed to you by a king, it would be in a gracious manner. If it were vouchsafed to you by one of your peers, use of vouchsafe would indicate condescension.

Essentially, the word means that something was granted to you. If it were granted by someone who obviously has more power than you, than it will be understood to have been done in a graceful manner. If you use the word to refer to someone who is at the same social, economic or power level as you, then it would be taken as ironic and suggest a condescending manner.

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