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Don't be bossy!

Rosie Right

A reader asks: "What if anything is the difference between masterful, masterly, and magisterial?"

This is not the easy question it appears at first. In the Third Edition of Fowler's, edited by R.W. Burchfield, we learn that "In BrE [British English] more than in AmE., and in serious writing rather than in the sports pages of newspapers, masterly is the standard work for 'skillful' sense and masterful for the 'domineering' sense. It cannot be denied, however, that much as one would wish it otherwise, the unconventional sense of masterful to mean skillful' turns up frequently and seems for the present ineradicable. ...

"But in good writing, masterful still emerges as the word to be used of a domineering person."

Leaving aside Burchfield's swipe at American English and at the sports writing in newspapers, he makes a very nice distinction.

But not everyone agrees. Webster's Dictionary of English Usages pronounces:

"The usage books ... just about uniformly insist that masterful must mean 'domineering' and masterly 'skillful,' expert and that it is a misuse of masterful to use it in the sense given for masterly. ...

"This distinction, however neat and convenient, is entirely factitious, the invention of H.W. Fowler in 1926. Fowler knew ... that the two words were for a long time interchangeable. Each of them had a 'domineering' sense and a skillful, 'expert' sense. The 'domineering' sense of masterly dropped into disuse around the end of the 18th century. Fowler seems to have thought the world of English usage would be a tidier place if masterful too were limited to one sense. He therefore declared the differentiation between the two words to be complete.

"... Fowler's opinion was only wishful thinking in the first place ..."

The editors of Webster's continue for several columns enlightening us as to their interpretation of the words and, incidentally, showing the depth of disagreement between language "masters."

We may be left to our own devices when we decide between masterful and masterly. But what about magisterial? Webster's New World Dictionary (1999) includes a usage note about synonyms for magisterial
"SYN. masterful implies such strength of personality as enables one to impose his will on others ... domineering implies the arrogant, tyrannical manner of one who openly tries to dominate another... imperious suggests the arbitrary ruling of an emperor ...; magisterial, while not suggesting an assumption of arbitrary power, implies an excessive use of display of such inherent powers as a magistrate might have ..."

So much for simple questions from readers. Rosie believes she will — for fear of insulting others — remove all three of these words from her vocabulary.

Let Rosie hear from you by telephone (358-0825), letter (1118 W. Main St., Richmond, Va. 23220), fax (355-9089) or e-mail (

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