I'm trying to find why we consistently use the word "incident" with a negative connotation. All definitions of the word state something to the tune of:

an individual occurrence or event.

By this definition, I should be able to say "That birthday was quite an incident!" right? However, if I used that sentence in a conversation, someone would think a bad thing happened at the birthday.

Which brings me to my question, why do we use incident with a negative connotation?

  • 3
    Because that is its typical usage. Commented Nov 10, 2019 at 19:02
  • @WeatherVane I'm asking how we ended up with this usage, I'm aware that's the typical usage. Commented Nov 10, 2019 at 19:07
  • Because of the incident of the chicken and the egg.
    – Hot Licks
    Commented Nov 10, 2019 at 19:29
  • Or perhaps because of The Bedford Incident.
    – Hot Licks
    Commented Nov 10, 2019 at 19:36

2 Answers 2


M-W cites the negative connotation of incident as third:

3 : an action likely to lead to grave consequences especially in diplomatic matters.

  • a serious border incident

The above connotation is an euphemistic usage from the beginning of the 20th century:

Euphemistic meaning "event that might trigger a crisis or political unrest" first attested 1913. (Etymonline)


Note that the definition of "incident" has shifted significantly over the years. It's original meaning was "something which occurs casually in connection with something else", but it is now commonly regarded more as a (relatively random) "accident" whose cause is not really important.

With the original meaning, the term was naturally applied (somewhat euphemistically) to situations with bad outcomes, as a good outcome would tend to be described as beneficial.

(Note that a birthday is only an "incident" when one considers the prior lifetime of the subject.)

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