3

Phenomenal nowadays is primarily used in common discourse to mean extraordinary, although it has a now-rarer secondary meaning which I suspect was originally its primary meaning:

a. known through the senses rather than through thought or intuition
b. concerned with phenomena rather than with hypotheses

Perhaps this meaning is still common in academic writing such as papers on sociology or psychology, but I don't believe I've ever heard someone use it this way in common discourse even once in my life.

How did it acquire its now commonly understood meaning of extraordinary/exceptional?


[1] https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/phenomenal

5
  • Can you attribute the quote? Thanks
    – Laurel
    Nov 28, 2023 at 21:23
  • In philosophical contexts, phenomena is usually contrasted with what is behind phenomena, with an assumption that what is behind the phenomena is ontologically more fundamental than the phenomena (even though the phenomena may be epistemologically more fundamental). The currently popular usage of phenomenal thus tends to be jarring to the philosophically educated, as it is, in a way, the opposite of the philosophical usage (which, incidentally, has a much longer history). This adds to the reasons for giving this question serious attention.
    – jsw29
    Nov 28, 2023 at 21:31
  • Related: Are these two meanings of "phenomenal" related?.
    – jsw29
    Nov 28, 2023 at 21:33
  • And how did ordinary come to mean "commonplace"? And how did commonplace come to mean "not unusual"? It's turtles all the way down.
    – TimR
    Nov 29, 2023 at 10:09
  • If you check the Online Etymology Dictionary, phenomenon had this shift in meaning first, then phenomenal duplicated it.
    – Stuart F
    Nov 29, 2023 at 10:12

1 Answer 1

1

To discover the origins of “phenomenal” in is current, commonest, sense, we should look at the noun that gave rise to it:

OED

Phenomenon:

A thing which appears, or which is perceived or observed; a particular (kind of) fact, occurrence, or change as perceived through the senses or known intellectually; esp. a fact or occurrence, the cause or explanation of which is in question.

In the beginning, the word only appeared in the plural either as phænomena, phænomenas or phænomenons

1.a.In plural.

1583 The second [sign of the Pestilence] is often phænomena in the ayre, specially in Autumne. P. Barrough, Methode of Phisicke iv. xii. 193

for about 60 years and then

a1639 Somwhat I must note in this strange Phainomenon. H. Wotton, View Life & Death Duke of Buckingham in Reliquiæ Wottonianæ (1651) 102*

It was clear that the speakers of the day remained undecided as to what the root word actually was as we have the plural used for the singuar:

1708 I shall say one word only of St. Elmo's Fire because I did not make any particular Observation of that Phaenomena. translation of F. Leguat, New Voy. East-Indies 37

About 40 years later we have

4.A very notable or extraordinary thing; a highly exceptional or unaccountable fact or occurrence; (colloquial) a thing, person, or animal remarkable for some unusual quality; a prodigy.

The earliest record is given as

1741 Forthwith was I possessed with an insatiable curiosity to view this wonderful Phænomenon. Mem. Martinus Scriblerus 5 in A. Pope, Works vol. II

However, in this, it is not clear that Pope was actually using the word on its own in this sense as he modifies it with "wonderful" (i.e. filled with or causing wondrousness) and this abiguity is also present in the 1771 example

1771 From whatever origin your influence in this country arises, it is a phænomenon in the history of human virtue. ‘Junius’, Stat Nominis Umbra (1772) vol. II. lvii. 257

It is only in the 19th century that the OED offers clear evidence of this use:

1839 ‘This, Sir,’ said Mr. Vincent Crummles, bringing the maiden forward, ‘this is the infant phenomenon—Miss Ninetta Crummles.’ C. Dickens, Nicholas Nickleby xxiii. 217

Of course, Dickens was adept at recording and using langauage and I suspect that this is an early example of "phenomenon" meaning "a remarkable thing" rather than having any hints of its philosophical and scientific past.

Having established this meaning of the noun, the adjective can be examined:

Phenomenal first appear ~200 years after the noun, in the philosophical sense

1.a. Chiefly Philosophy and Psychology. Of the nature of a phenomenon; consisting of or belonging to the realm of phenomena or appearances; … (esp. as compared with its objective reality). Frequently opposed to real and, in philosophical use, to noumenal.

1825 The Mosaic Narrative thus interpreted gives a just and faithful exposition of the birth and parentage and successive movements of phænomenal Sin (Peccatum phænomenon: Crimen primarium et commune). S. T. Coleridge, Aids to Reflection 253

And the scientific shortly thereafter:

1840 Descriptive or Phenomenal geology. W. Whewell, Philosophy of Inductive Science vol. II. x. ii. §4. 103

These uses were the only use recorded throughout the 19th century.

However, if we look to the book "Looking Forward: The Phenomenal Progress of Electricity in 1912" by Harry W. Hillman published in 1906 (Google Books), in the same way that Pope’s use of phenomenon was ambiguous, we have its tantalising snippet

… least, the phenomenal extension of the electric motor drive.

The older people take pride in the accomplishments of this generation. They have enjoyed the many advances in the electrical arts, even as …

The book is a prediction of the expansion of electricity and its uses and, I suggest, is an early use of "phenomenal" in the sense if "remarkable."

This was followed in 1918 by the clearer

American Poultry Journal - Volume 49 - Page 178

1918 • ‎Regardless of what some may say, who perhaps have never produced phenomenal layer worth while , Mapleside produced the phenomenal layer Liberty Lass , record 268 eggs in one year . She was also a phenomenal breeder - 90 percent of her eggs hatched . She also possessed phenomenal prepotency ...

The conclusion is that a phenomenon was a singular occurance; a particular observed occurance and, probably in the 19th century, this became extended to an observation that was, in some way notable, i.e. remarkable.

This gave rise, from sometime before 1906 to 1918, to the “remarkable” meaning of the adjective “phenomenal”

4
  • 1
    This answer tells us when the meaning of the noun phenomenon shifted away from its original meaning, and also that the meaning of the adjective followed later, but it doesn't really tell us how and why these changes occurred, which is what the question was. Assuming that the 1839 example reflected the usage of the word among the potential readers of the book, it is puzzling why they would find it natural to describe someone as an 'infant phenomenon'? How is that usage connected with the original meaning of the word?
    – jsw29
    Nov 29, 2023 at 17:21
  • @jsw29 Agreed. The Dickens quote could be interpreted either way: that the little Miss is remarkable in some way, or that she represents an ordinary fact. Dickens affords us multiple such examples of over- or understatement.
    – Robusto
    Nov 29, 2023 at 19:16
  • @jsw29 - the adjective has simply, over it's relatively short life, extended in application and meaning. The meaning has loosened. Essentially, it has remained the same. The definition applicable to the 1825 quote is "consisting of or belonging to the realm of phenomena or appearances" - in itself indicating something worthy of note - but in a serious or formal sense. By 1912/18, it in popular use in the extended sense. How is that usage connected with the original meaning of the word? - well, as is said, "If you can't see it, I can't help you."
    – Greybeard
    Nov 30, 2023 at 1:07
  • @Robusto. You will find the quote at gutenberg.org/cache/epub/967/pg967-images.html#link2HCH0023. The context will help you decide.
    – Greybeard
    Nov 30, 2023 at 1:09

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.