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October 3, 2011

Gary Lineker on Saturday’s Match of the Day used the word ‘fortuitous’ to describe somebody’s goal, meaning fortunate for the team that scored it. I’m not singling Lineker out for criticism, though; the word ‘fortuitous’ has long been a favourite of commentators and sports writers as an impressive-sounding way of saying ‘fortunate’. But it’s supposed to mean – or it was supposed to mean – ‘by chance’. Neither good chance nor bad chance. Just chance. Accident. Hap.

But I’m not singling out the sports writers and commentators for criticism either; they are continuing a long tradition in which neutral words for random, undesigned or fluke occurrences gradually acquire positive connotations. ‘Fortuitous’ is simply going down the same road that ‘fortunate’ went down centuries before it (the Roman goddess Fortuna was responsible for both good and bad fortune).  It is the same with ‘luck’, which now always means good luck, unless otherwise specified. A fluke is usually a welcome fluke.  ‘Hap’ has given us ‘happy’. The word ‘chance’ in certain contexts also has an implied positive connotation; if you say ‘There’s still a chance’ you mean that there is a chance of success, not failure. In French, too, ‘Vous avez de la chance’ means ‘You are lucky’.

The only exception to this trend I can think of is ‘accident’, which always has negative connotations unless otherwise stated. All other words connected with chance sooner or later acquire a positive sense. Maybe this indicates that we are natural optimists?

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