Opinionated used to imply obstinate. These days it’s taken on another meaning, according to UMSL dean Robert M. Bliss.
By Robert M. Bliss
Now there’s a word for you. It’s not too often used, possibly because it has five, or arguably six, syllables in what is really a very short space, but I was quite familiar with it as a child. My father used it often, too often, for he generally thought of himself as a careful writer and speaker and didn’t like excessive repetition. But he repeated “opinionated” with some regularity. His former commanding officer in the field artillery was opinionated. His dean was opinionated. The president of his university was opinionated, as was the president of his country, his youngest brother, his Uncle Harold (a Republican national committeeman for Iowa) and quite a few other people.
Clearly dad did not use “opinionated” as a compliment, so I was not surprised when I found, arriving at my history department in England, in 1970, that there the word was commonly used pejoratively. Specifically, it was used (too often, no doubt) to describe the work of, especially, those first-year students who saw a historical problem not as something requiring a solution but rather as an excuse to rehearse their preconceptions, whether about politics or human nature or the Chelsea Football Club. After all, solving historical problems called for a good deal of reading, note-taking, marshaling of evidence, and the construction of narratives that not only told a story but also linked causes to effects in more or less chronological and cardinal orders. And they also let you in for a good deal of uncertainty, because for most of the time that you slaved away at this solution you really didn’t know how it was going to turn out. Micawberish, you had to keep on the lookout because something new might turn up and throw all your work into a cocked hat.
So far, so good, at least with the meaning of the word “opinionated.” My father’s usages and those of my colleagues at Lancaster were close enough to each other (and to the favored dictionary definitions) to qualify for my use, too. To be opinionated was to think too highly of, or hold obstinately to, one’s own opinion (as it were in the face of the evidence or of logic or, often, both). It was to be conceited and dogmatic without any extenuating excuse. I am here paraphrasing main meanings given in the Oxford English Dictionary, so I write with some kind of authority. And the OED, as is its wont, has some nice examples drawn from English authors like Aphra Behn (1687) and Samuel Richardson (1753) and Americans like Alison Lurie (1965).
Behn: “She was very Opinionated and Obstinate.”
Richardson: “A young gentleman lately married; very affected, and very opinionated.
Lurie: “He was lazy, untrustworthy, and opinionated.”
In this climate of what seemed a transatlantic consensus, and one dignified by great age, I became impatient of opinions, maybe even opinionated about them. It’s a free country, I would say to my Lancaster seminars (and Britain was almost as free as the US despite having gun laws, a working class, and socialized medicine), and in a free country opinions multiply like rabbits. In this seminar we’re going to have a bit of birth control concerning the conception and parturition of ideas and arguments. Failing that we will try myxomatosis, always a good cure when you have too many rabbits.
By the time I got to UM-St. Louis and its Honors College, the routine had become settled. I began PLHC seminars, in August or January depending, by saying “in this seminar we will discover the truth” about, well, about whatever the seminar was about, church-state relations in early America or the interrelatedness of freedom and slavery, or why Giles Corey was pressed to death at Salem in 1693. But I was a bit perturbed to find, almost every time, that at least one student would then ask “does that mean we can’t give you our opinions?”
Now, this sort of question raises a many-layered problem, involving (heaven help us) the nature of historical truth, freedom of speech and writing, and civilized behavior in Bob’s seminars, but what I didn’t realize until I sat down to write this piece for The Stew is that it raises also the problem of the migration of words and their meaning(s) from one certain place to another certain (but different) place. Specifically, the migration of “opinionated” from pejorative to positive. Because when I write about a word one of the first things I do is to call it up on the online edition of the Oxford English Dictionary (just join the St. Louis County Library and you have free access to this wonderful treasure without moving from behind your computer*). So that’s what I did with “opinionated” and, lo, I discovered that since I jumped the good ship USA in 1969 the word itself has acquired a new and specifically American (or, as the OED would have it, a U. S.) meaning, #4 in their list of definitions, of simply “holding firm views or opinions.” It must be true because it’s in the OED and the OED offers American (U.S.) usages from 1961, 1976, 1986, and 2002.
This is quite a shift, really, in just forty years, from being “obstinate, conceited, and dogmatic” to being “firm.” I mean, “firm” is what we are looking for, isn’t it? We don’t want to flip-flop or shilly-shally, especially if we are running for the presidency of our country, or climbing up the company’s promotion ladder. As the Financial World put it, in 1986, of a top business executive, “His humble manner and placid voice notwithstanding, Wal-Mart’s CEO is heartily opinionated, possessed of a staunch, personal sense of right and wrong in his business dealings.”
Hurrah for Wal-Mart, I say, and for its CEO. Hurrah for “opinionated,” especially when it’s hearty. Let’s all be firm. Or, failing that, let’s all join the firm. And if the evidence and the logic points in another direction? Well, let’s not vacillate. Let’s be opinionated. Firm is always better than feeble, not least when it flies in the face of the facts.
Robert Bliss is dean of the Pierre Laclede Honors College at the University of Missouri-St. Louis. This essay first appeared in The Brain Stew, the newsletter of the students at the Honors College.