"gratuitous" = 'free' ?

Fri Apr 17 15:42:14 UTC 2009

        It's still occasionally used, but not common.  In April 2009
legal opinions to date, "gratuitous" was used 28 times, of which 7
examples meant "for free."  For various reasons, legal usage is likely
to disproportionately emphasize the "for free" sense.  I also looked at
40 recent examples in edited news sources.  Of these, 39 meant
"unwarranted" and one, a legal usage, meant "for free."

John Baker

-----Original Message-----
From: American Dialect Society [mailto:ADS-L at LISTSERV.UGA.EDU] On Behalf
Of Mark Mandel
Sent: Friday, April 17, 2009 11:05 AM
Subject: "gratuitous" = 'free' ?

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

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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