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Clearly, the most common usage of this is "inveterate liar." I don't think I've ever heard this word used in a positive sense.

You never hear of an "inveterate philanthropist," for example.

Does usage of this word inherently describe a negative trait?

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  • 1
    Not by definition 'having a habit... that is long-established and unlikely to change' (Oxford). See this Oct 26, 2021 at 14:41
  • 2
    Obviously not, since Google Books has hundreds of written instances of inveterate cheerfulness. Oct 26, 2021 at 16:43
  • ...but there's definitely a bias towards the negative, given that if I search NGrams for " inveterate * ", it tells me the most common words to follow inveterate (in "popularity" order) are enemy, hatred, habit, hostility, prejudice, foe,... Oct 26, 2021 at 16:49
  • 2
    ...also note that Google Books has at least a couple of dozen written instances of the collocation "inveterate philanthropist". Oct 26, 2021 at 16:52
  • 1
    Any time you're discussing a trait that can be attributed to a human, there will be a preponderance of negative or pejorative terms. Basic human nature. Oct 26, 2021 at 17:50

3 Answers 3

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It can be verified in OALD that this adjective is often disapproving.

(OALD) inveterate adjective BrE /ɪnˈvetərət/ AmE /ɪnˈvetərət/
[usually before noun] (formal, often disapproving)
​(of a person) always doing something or enjoying something, and unlikely to stop
♦ an inveterate liar
♦ He was an inveterate traveller

There is nothing disapproving about the word "traveller", for instance.

A research in Google Books shows that the most frequent nouns used with this adjective are not disapproving in meaning but instead negative in meaning; out of the six in the ngram only one is disapproving (prejudice), while four connote negative tendencies (enemy, foe, hatred, hostility).

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Habit (neither disapproving nor negative cases)

(ref.) He developed a handsome shaggy white coat, a quiet, well featured face, and betrayed his low origin only by one inveterate habit; carts he took no notice of, but never a carriage, small or great, appeared in sight but he ran yelping at …

(ref.) In Mr Alexander's case the habit is seen to less advantage by reason of his voice , which is hollow , and has certainly not been improved by an inveterate habit of snuff - taking in which he used to indulge

Other nouns (neither disapproving nor negative cases)

reader, talker, arguer

(ref.) Lady Rachel is an inveterate reader, an inveterate talker, and an inveterate arguer.

writer

(ref.) He was an inveterate writer of books, articles and reviews chiefly in the fields of history, politics and biography.

actor

(ref.) Already an inveterate actor by the time the movie was made, having first acted in his father's movie Pound at age five, Downey's role in Less Than Zero garnered him critical acclaim.

fighter pilot

(ref.) Though now slower of gate, his eyes, intellect and reflexes remain in good order. An inveterate fighter pilot, Vraciu is still wont to practice his skills. As he drives a highway off-ramp, Alex Vraciu will on occasion get on the six ...

The case of "friend" and "enemy"

There could be as many as 76 cases of "inveterate friend" and as many as 253 "inveterate enemy".

The conclusion could be, therefore, that this adjective is not associated predominantly with nouns that are disapproving, or in other words that identify a negative trait, but instead that it is associated predominantly, with nouns that are negative in meaning (The difference must be clear: in "a distaste for raw meat" or in "a healthy hatred for Nazi endoctrination" the words "distaste" and "hatred" are not disapproving but merely negative.); What is certain is that it is far from being associated predominently with disapproving terms and far from being associated exclusively to a set comprising disapproving terms and terms with a negative meaning.

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It was only when I reached Oxford Learner's Dictionary that I came across a caveat referring directly to the usual but not obligatory pejorative aspect attaching to this word:

inveterate [adjective] [usually before noun] (formal, often disapproving):

​(used of a person) always doing something or enjoying something, and unlikely to stop

  • an inveterate liar
  • He was an inveterate traveller.

Lexico allows the non-pejorative possibility:

inveterate [adjective] [attributive]

(1) Having a particular habit, activity, or interest that is long-established and unlikely to change.

The first two examples of real-life quotes they list both contain the strong collocation 'inveterate gamblers' and they really set the tone. The second example is

  • They are inveterate gamblers, drink as much beer as their wages will permit, are devoted to bawdy jokes, and use probably the foulest language in the world.

The breakdown of the head nouns in the examples Lexico gives is:

{negative / pejorative}: gambler/s: (6) smoker/s: (1) coward/s: (1) social climber/s: (1) procrastinator/s: (1) gossip/s: (1) liar/s: (1) cheat/s: (1) skirt chaser/s: (1) hoarder/s: (1) party-goer/s: (1) (the last two certainly pejorative or tongue-in-cheek when twinned with 'inveterate')

..........................

{neutral / indeterminate}: Cold War-rior/s: (1) television watcher/s: (1) adventurer/s: (1) essayist/s and letter writer/s: (1) jazz fan/s: (1) networker/s: (1) multi-tasker/s: (1) correspondent/s: (1) home movie-maker/s: (1) critic/s of liberal media bias: (1) optimist/s: (1) people watcher/s: (1)

..........................

{approbatory}

grassroots activist/s and organiser/s: (1) (we'll give this the benefit of the doubt) crusader/s (1) (from the context) good guy/s: (1) (though elsewhere this could be a sarcastic, negative usage)

..........................

I've avoided classifying 'opponent to Central Government' as too contentious.

Lexico also has a sub-sense where the head noun is a feeling, habit or the like (rather than a subset of people). 'Hostility' and 'hatred' appear in the earlier examples, though 'idealism and enthusiasm' and 'good manners' (!) buck the negative trend.

So I'd summarise and conclude;

(1) 'Inveterate' is certainly used (of people and their beliefs / behaviours) in 'neutral' and even approbatory statements, although

(2) the large majority of occurrences involve, in line with the OLD caveat, disapproval.

This means that

(3) care needs to be taken when a non-pejorative sense is intended that context counter the strong negative pull. Of course, a quirky effect may result, which may (or may not) be considered desirable.

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Historical associations with damaging habits (you are yourself familiar with "inveterate liar", I reflexively recall "inveterate gambler") has cemented 'inveterate' as a term for which a fatal habit is a corollary.

Of course, there is nothing logically or grammatically incorrect about following the term with a positive habit, but it rings jarring in the context of historical usage. This is most likely because damaging habits themselves often denote a pathology and compulsion not associated with positive activities like charity or any other activity that might denote selflessness.

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