During a recent NFL playoff game, veteran NBC sportscaster Al Michaels reported that an official's placement of the football had been "very fortuitous" for the Philadelphia Eagles because it had given them a first down.
For linguistic purists watching the telecast — and yes, some of them do follow football — Michaels' use of "fortuitous" to mean "fortunate" was highly unfortunate. They insist that "fortuitous" means "occurring by chance," not "beneficial." Thus, having a branch fall randomly onto your car is fortuitous, even though it's unfortunate.
When "fortuitous" first appeared in English during the 1600s, it meant only "occurring by chance," and this meaning is still common today, as in a recent New Yorker story noting that Vermont gubernatorial candidate Christine Hallquist had braved "a fortuitous health calamity."
But during the past decades, more and more people have also been using "fortuitous" to mean "occurring by lucky chance." A post on Bubba Watson's blog last year noted that fellow golfer Graeme McDowell had thanked a fan after a ball had taken "a fortuitous bounce" off the fan's head." (Was the bounce as fortuitous for the fan as it was for McDowell?)
Given the similarities between "fortuitous," "fortunate" and "felicitous," it's easy to see why this semantic transition from "occurring by chance" to "occurring by good luck" evolved.
Today, only the stuffiest purist would object to the use of "fortuitous " to mean "happening by lucky chance." In a 2005 survey, 68 percent of the usage panel of the American Heritage Dictionary, for instance, approved this sentence: "The photographer felt that it was very fortuitous that she was in place to take the winning photo," (meaning that she was lucky to be in the right place at the right time).
But always avoid the use of "fortuitous" to mean "fortunate" when chance is not involved. Last December, the New York Times reported that the partnership between Ohio State University and its retiring head football coach Urban Meyer had been "one of the most fortuitous marriages in recent college sports." (Although Meyer wasn't expecting to get a call from Ohio State in 2011, his hiring hardly occurred by chance.)
Whenever you use "fortuitous," always provide enough context to make your meaning clear. A vague sentence such as "Our meeting was fortuitous" can leave people foggy, like a golf ball shot to the head. Boink!
Rob Kyff, a teacher and writer in West Hartford, Connecticut, invites your language sightings. Send your reports of misuse and abuse, as well as examples of good writing, via email to [email protected] or by regular mail to Rob Kyff, Creators Syndicate, 737 3rd Street, Hermosa Beach, CA 90254.