Today’s lesson comes from “The Princess Bride,” in which the following exchange between Vizzini and Inigo Montoya occurs:
[Vizzini has cut the rope that The Dread Pirate Roberts is climbing.]
Vizzini: He didn’t fall? INCONCEIVABLE!
Inigo Montoya: You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.
Recall that Vizzini had used the word “inconceivable” to describe other situations that were hard to believe:
Inigo Montoya: You are sure nobody’s follow’ us?
Vizzini: As I told you, it would be absolutely, totally, and in all other ways inconceivable. No one in Guilder knows what we’ve done, and no one in Florin could have gotten here so fast. Out of curiosity, why do you ask?
Inigo Montoya: No reason. It’s only . . . I just happened to look behind us and something is there.
[Later, after reaching the Cliffs of Insanity, and beginning the assent by rope.]
Inigo Montoya: He’s climbing the rope. And he’s gaining on us.
So, is Inigo Montoya right—does Vizzi use the word “inconceivable” incorrectly?
Well, according to Webster’s Third New International Dictionary, one of the accepted definitions of “inconceivable” is “falling outside the limit of what can be comprehended, accepted as true or real, or tolerated,” and describes situations that are “impossible to comprehend in the absence of actual experience or knowledge” or “impossible to entertain in the mind” or “impossible to accept as an article of faith.” Under that definition, which requires something to be “impossible,” it appears that Inigo Montoya has the better argument.
But a second definition offered in Webster’s accepts something as “inconceivable” if it is “hard to believe or believe in.” Under that definition, Vizzini seems to have used the word correctly.
Nevertheless, given that the word describes something that is not just unlikely, but nearly impossible to believe, it seems best to use the word sparingly—if at all.
That is all for now …