Sunday, April 28, 2024

Extraordinary isn't extra ordinary!

The word "extraordinary" is a fascinating example of how language can evolve, leading to curious terms that might seem illogical at first glance. When we break down "extraordinary" into its components, "extra" and "ordinary," it appears to suggest something that is extremely ordinary. However, the intended meaning of "extraordinary" is actually quite the opposite. It describes something exceptional or remarkable.[1]  

As its own word, “extra” is an intensifier meaning “to a greater extent” or “especially”. But, as a prefix, “extra-“ means “beyond” or “outside”.  

This linguistic oddity raises an interesting question: Why do we say "extra" and "ordinary" together to convey the idea of something exceptional, instead of simply using the word "exceptional" itself?

One possible explanation lies in the evolution of language. English, like many languages, has absorbed and adapted words and phrases from various sources over time. The term "extraordinary" dates back to the 15th century, derived from Latin roots meaning "beyond" (extra) and "ordinary" (ordinarius). In this context, "ordinary" refers to the usual or expected state of affairs.[2]

At the time of its origin, the term "extraordinary" likely served to emphasize the exceptional nature of something, emphasizing its deviation from the norm. Over time, as language evolved, the compound word "extraordinary" became firmly established in the English lexicon, retaining its original meaning despite its seemingly contradictory structure.

The continued use of "extraordinary" to mean exceptional may also be attributed to the richness and nuance of language. Words often carry connotations and shades of meaning that extend beyond their literal definitions. In this case, the juxtaposition of "extra" and "ordinary" in "extraordinary" may evoke a sense of something both beyond and outside the ordinary, emphasizing its exceptional nature in a way that "exceptional" alone might not.

Beyond Extraordinary

While "extraordinary" and "exceptional" are strong choices, our vocabulary offers a wealth of alternatives to describe the extraordinary:

Remarkable: This word emphasizes how something is worthy of notice and comment.

Stupendous: This choice conveys a sense of astonishment and wonder.

Phenomenal: This term implies something extraordinary and almost unbelievable.

Prodigious: This word suggests exceptional skill, talent, or achievement.

Astounding: This emphasizes how something leaves you speechless and amazed.

The best choice depends on the specific context and the nuance you want to convey. So, next time you encounter something that transcends the ordinary, reach for the word that best captures its remarkable nature!


Although "extraordinary" is a common word, it is still often mispronounced. It is not pronounced as "extra" and "ordinary", as that implies something that is very ordinary, as noted previously.  Instead, the "a" is silent.  Weirdly, you also need to break up the "k" and "s" sounds from "x" between two syllables, as in ik·stror·duh·neh·ree, or /ɪkˈstrɔːr.də in international terms, with some minor localized variations.[3] In particular, the "stror" or "strɔ" syllable might be difficult for nonnative English speakers, with its two separate "r" sounds.


According to Google Ngram, it appears that usage of "extraordinary" has been in a steady decline in written works over the past 200 hundred years.[4]  I cannot find any information as to why.  My guess is that we are living in a world that requires increasing precision. "Extraordinary" maybe used in a manner that is not conducive to express such precision. There are plenty of other words which can be used interchangeably.  In a gradient system (such as couple-several-few), could one really say that "remarkable" or "exceptional" are on high or lower tiers from "extraordinary" or each other?  (There have been attempts at order, for example.)

However, I was able to dig up one op-ed that actually claims the word "extraordinary" is in a state of overuse. I find that opinion to be extraordinary.

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