Is it Prestigious to use Prestigeful?

During the next few months, the students from my MA course Testing Prescriptivism will be writing posts for this blog. This first one is from Annemarie Walop.

Microsoft Word's comment

Microsoft Word’s comment

It might be very telling that as I am writing this, Microsoft Word puts a red line under the word prestigeful. Sadly, it gives no suggestions as to what I should use instead.

Robert Burchfield

Robert Burchfield

I came across this adjectival form of prestige in the article ‘Usage Problems in British and American English’, written by Robert F. Ilson (1985). In his article Ilson deals with all the words that were on Robert Burchfield’s list in a BBC booklet called The Spoken Word, published in 1981 – words that were considered usage problems in British English. In the section on vocabulary there were 47 items, one of them being prestigious. Ilson commented that “the less controversial alternative prestigeful does not seem to have caught on” (p. 174).

Is this the case or has the form prestigeful never been very popular to begin with?

To find the answer to this question, I made use of the Oxford English Dictionary (OED). The OED lists three quotations for the word prestigeful, the first from 1936 and the last from 1990. Prestigious on the other hand has eight quotations, with the first one being dated 1901 and the final one 1994. Thus prestigious has been used for a longer period of time than its counterpart. Interestingly, the OED mentions another form: prestiginous (use prestigious instead! says Word). Prestiginous is labelled ‘rare’ in the OED, and  is defined as follows: “viewed in terms of prestige; prestigious”. It has two quotations, one from 1896 and one from 1951.

The New Fowler’s Modern English Usage (1996), edited by Robert Burchfield, has an entry on prestigious, which includes a reference to prestigeful:

Prestigious is challenged by prestige used attrib., and to a minor extent by the less euphonious form prestigeful (first recorded in 1956)” (p. 621)

Robert Burchfield apparently thought that the form needed to be mentioned, even though he might have been the only one to consider it a usage problem. Another usage guide, namely the Longman Guide to English Usage (1988), does not mention prestigeful, nor does Webster’s New Twentieth Century Dictionary (1971). The Concise Oxford Dictionary (1976) only has prestigeful listed under prestige, without any further explanation.

Google NGrams shows that during the 1960s and the 1970s, the form prestigeful was used sparingly, and that the form prestigious has always been preferred. In the 1980s, when Burchfield compiled his list for The Spoken Word, the form had all but disappeared, which makes it even more surprising to see that Burchfield still listed it in The New Fowler’s Modern English Usage in 1996.

Ngram prestigeful

This begs the question of whether the form prestigeful was ever used at all, or whether it was just Robert Burchfield who was obsessed by it?

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3 Responses to Is it Prestigious to use Prestigeful?

  1. Marten says:

    In a similar vein, it is worth noting that ‘prestigeful’ is not found once in the British National Corpus (which includes a variety of texts both spoken and written from the period 1960-1993), whereas ‘prestigious’ is found 732 times.
    This made me think: could it be an American form? Alas. A quick look in COCA (which admittedly spans a different period, 1990-2012) again gives zero hits for ‘prestigeful’, and a whooping 3474 for ‘prestigious’.
    It might be worthwhile to check the Brown Corpus, which I believe includes American English from the period 1960-1970, but it seems again as if a usage guide writer was completely out of sync with actual usage,

  2. Yes, excellent idea. But you might also like to try COHA (COCA’s historical sister), which is freely available (unlike Brown or Frown).

  3. I’ve quickly checked COHA, and it seems that the occurrence of prestigeful is negligable with 4 occurrences compared to 894 occurrences of prestigious. Both variants occur from the 20th century onwards.

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