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Years ago (like in the 1990s), I looked up the word in the OED and saw only meanings like offering unsolicited advice. But I think many people use it to describe people who take their small amount of power seriously. Barney Fife might be an example, maybe there are better ones. My question is, is this Barney-Fifish meaning now accepted and if so, is it pretty new usage?

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tl;dr: you're right.


in the 1990s), I looked up the word in the OED and saw

In the 1990s you would have been looking at the second edition of the OED, finalised in 1989. In OED2, officious is given as(£):

†1. Doing or ready to do kind offices; eager to serve or please; attentive, obliging, kind. Obs.

†b. officious lie (L. mendacium officiosum, F. mensonge officieux): a lie told as an act of kindness to further another's interests. So officious falsity. Obs.

†2. Dutiful; active or zealous in doing one's duty. Obs.

b. Of a thing: Performing its office or function, serving its purpose, efficacious. rare.

3 Unduly forward in proffering services or taking business upon oneself; doing, or prone to do, more than is asked or required; interfering with what is not one's concern; pragmatical, meddlesome.

†4. Pertaining to an office or business, official; hence, formal. Obs.

  1. Diplomacy. As opposed to official: Having an extraneous relation to official matters or duties; having the character of a friendly communication, or informal action, on the part of a government or its official representatives. (= F. officieux (Littré), It. uffizioso.)

Noting that † means obsolete, we see that the only non-rare still-current general meaning is 3, which accords with your memory.

By contrast, the current OED (OED3, from March 2004) has (£) - my emphasis:

†1. a. Of persons or their actions, etc.: active or zealous in the exercise of an office; dutiful. Obs. b. Of things: performing the proper office or function; serving the required purpose; efficacious. Obs.

2 Doing or ready to do kind offices; eager to serve, help, or please; attentive, obliging, kind. Now rare, exc. as passing into sense 3. Cf. officious lie n., officious falsity n. at Special uses.

3 Unduly forward in offering one's services, or in taking business upon oneself; doing, or prone to do, more than is asked or required; interfering, intrusive. In later use esp.: inclined to assert authority in a self-important or pompous way, esp. with regard to petty or trivial matters. (Now the usual sense.)

†4. Relating or belonging to an office or business; official, formal. Obs.

5 In diplomats' use (as distinguished from official): not directly bearing on official business; having the character of a friendly communication or informal action on the part of a government or its official representatives; informal, unofficial. Now rare.

So we see that that same sense 3 has evolved into what is now (I agree) the usual sense. And it is this 'usual sense' that is given prime billing at oxforddictionaries.com, which is fair enough. The quotations for sense 3 show this evolution starting well before 1989, so it's perhaps surprising that OED2 doesn't include this nuance at all.


oed.com pages are subscriber-only, but UK library membership often grants subscriber access

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  • Thanks very much -- my memory was correct. I don't know if anyone using officious nowadays except in the "petty tyrant" sense at all and if I understand your response entirely, this evolved fairly recently.
    – Jeff
    Dec 8, 2017 at 15:40
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"people who take their small amount of power seriously"

This sense of the word you refer to is exactly how Oxford currently defines it, and it does not seem to be a 'new' meaning of the word:

officious [adjective]

  1. Assertive of authority in a domineering way, especially with regard to trivial matters.

The commentary on origin and changing meanings is notable:

Origin: Late 15th century: from Latin officiosus ‘obliging’, from officium (see office). The original sense was ‘performing its function, efficacious’, whence ‘ready to help or please’ (mid 16th century), later becoming depreciatory (late 16th century).

The other meaning is

1.1 Intrusively enthusiastic in offering help or advice; interfering.

Source: https://en.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/officious

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  • The first definition I am sure was not even listed in the OED in 1990 or so. Although the origin is shown, it is not clear at what point "my" definition became first unless you mean "becoming deprecatory" but that might include offering unsolicited help rather than (1.). I would actually be interested in how the OED showed it in 1990 to see if I am even remembering it rightly: I did not have an OED at home, and so I looked at the library and remember chatting about this with the librarian.
    – Jeff
    Dec 8, 2017 at 10:19
  • It's very unlikely to be an entirely 'new' meaning but it is very possible @Jeff that one traditional meaning became more widely used than the others over these 27 odd years. Unfortunately I do not have access to the full version of the OED so I hope some other member will clarify that point about the 1990 listing. Dec 8, 2017 at 14:55

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