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Every time I want to use an antonym to "pertinent", I think of "impertinent", which I don't like to use because of its more common meaning. How did "impertinent" come to mean "intrusive or presumptuous, as persons or their actions; insolently rude; uncivil" (Dictionary.com)?

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I found your revised question really interesting. I learned something new today. Thanks! – Kit Z. Fox Jun 28 '11 at 2:46
I am learning, in every way, every day... – Thursagen Jun 28 '11 at 11:27
up vote 6 down vote accepted

Etymology Online suggests that the use of impertinent to mean "rudely bold" is connected to similar use in French, and happened around 1680. It also offers the tantalizing tidbit

especially by Molière, from notion of meddling with what is beyond one's proper sphere.

Now the first thing I think of when I see "Molière" is intermediate French class and the play Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme. Jean-Batiste Poquelin aka Molière was a French playwright whose satiric plays centered around characters who were taken out of their 'natural' element. In Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme, for instance, is the story of a middle class man who aspires to the aristocracy. He is like a fish out of water as he tries to learn to be a gentleman, and much hilarity ensues.

If we look closely at the etymology of the word, it is not too much of a stretch to equate "not pertaining to something" with "not a part of something." The association with Molière's works certainly could have helped impertinence take on this slightly altered meaning.

So it would seem that the "intrusive or presumptuous" meaning of impertinence is fashionably French.

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The meaning of impertinent are two:

  • not showing proper respect; rude
  • (formal) not pertinent to a particular matter; irrelevant

Hers was an impertinent question.
Talk of rhetoric and strategy is impertinent to this process.

At least in the second case, impertinent is an antonym of pertinent.

The original meaning of the word is the second one; the meaning then slowly changed to the first one.

The Wiktionary has a note about the usage of impertinent:

As many older speakers will consider definition 2 incorrect, avoiding the word altogether may be advisable. The construction "not pertinent" is one possible alternative.

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I changed the question title. Sorry I wasn't clear at first. I didn't realize that "impertinent" ever meant "not pertinent"! – Daniel Jun 28 '11 at 1:36
I wouldn't say the "irrelevant" sense of "impertinent" is formal. I'd say it's archaic. I really find it hard to imagine the word being used in that sense today, in any context. – FumbleFingers Jun 28 '11 at 1:44
The NOAD doesn't say that the second meaning is archaic and, as far as I know, it is still used. – kiamlaluno Jun 28 '11 at 2:02
I am one of those misguided souls who is willing to defend our linguistic past, and even I don't think that using impertinent to mean "not pertinent" is a good idea. I've literally never heard it used that way. And there is no shortage of near-synonyms (irrelevant, immaterial, superfluous, off-topic, diversionary, and on and on), so let's just let that meaning go. The original question is still open, though. – Malvolio Jun 28 '11 at 2:35
@Fumble If you want to dispute @kiamlaluno, why don't you post your own answer? Then you will have more room to discuss it. – Kit Z. Fox Jun 28 '11 at 2:44

"Pertinent" means "topical."

In its original form, "impertinent" meant "not topical," or in the language of this site, "off topic." That is actually an offense, because being "off topic" is widely seen as a form of "rudeness," or "lack of respect."

Over time, "impertinent" took on the connotations of "active," rather than "passive" rudeness. That is, it started to gain the meaning of outright disrespect (insolent or intrusive) as opposed to the milder "showing lack of respect" (rude or uncivil).

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From Etymonline:

impertinent late 14c., "unconnected, unrelated," from L.L. impertinentem (nom. impertinens) "not belonging," lit. "not to the point," from L. in- "not" (see in- (1)) + pertinens (see pertinent).

Sense of "rudely bold" is 1680s, probably modeled on similar use in French, especially by Molière, from notion of meddling with what is beyond one's proper sphere.

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