"gratuitous" = 'free' ?

Mark Mandel thnidu at GMAIL.COM
Fri Apr 17 15:04:32 UTC 2009

Does "gratuitous" still ever mean 'free (of charge)'?

I'm looking through a co-worker's lexicon of a little-known language
that is spoken in a former French colony, where French is therefore
official. The author, a native speaker of the target language, uses
French and English as the languages of translation. I'm finding many
errors or apparent errors in the English glosses that are based on
faux amis, i.e. use of an English word that was originally borrowed
from French, but which now does not mean the same as the current
French word. (I've studied French, and I read it reasonably well, but
I'm using dictionaries.)

In a number of places I'm finding "gratuitous" used for 'free of
charge'. F.  "gratuit" can mean either 'free of charge' or
'gratuitous, unwarranted'. AFAIK, E. "gratuitous" is used almost
exclusively in the second sense, usually modifying a noun such as
"insult" or "offense", and I thought the author was mistakenly using
it in the first sense as well by analogy with F. But to my surprise I
found that both MW and OED's online editions give 'free of charge' as
the first definition, with no restriction of register or period. OED's
quotations don't go past 1876 for any sense.

Is my impression correct, or am I just overlooking or missing fairly
widespread use of the sense 'free of charge'?

1 a: given unearned or without recompense b: not involving a return
benefit, compensation, or consideration c: costing nothing : free2:
not called for by the circumstances : unwarranted <gratuitous
insolence> <a gratuitous assumption>

    1. Freely bestowed or obtained; granted without claim or merit;
provided without payment or return; costing nothing to the recipient;
    2. Done, made, adopted, or assumed without any good ground or
reason; not required or warranted by the circumstances of the case;
uncalled-for; unjustifiable.
    b. Of the agent: Performing the action implied without reason or

Mark Mandel

The American Dialect Society - http://www.americandialect.org

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