Word: innocuous

Pronunciation: i-NAH-kyoo-əs

Part of Speech: adjective

Definition: not harmful or offensive

Source: Oxford Dictionaries


Little did he know that this simple, seemingly innocuous act would result in his imminent death.

– Karen Eiffel, Stranger Than Fiction (2006)

If you’ve seen the movie Stranger Than Fiction, you probably remember this iconic quote from the most important plot point in the story of Harold Crick. While resetting the time on his wristwatch after it inexplicably goes on the fritz, the narrating voice in the IRS agent’s head notes the irony that such a normally harmless act is what will lead to the untimely and heartbreaking end of his life’s story (at which point Harold understandably begins to panic).

To call anything “innocuous” – whether concrete or abstract – is to say that it’s harmless. The word is actually a prefixed form of the adjective “nocuous”, meaning “noxious, harmful, or poisonous”, though this stem seems to be used mostly for poetic writing than for modern prose. “Innocuous” comes from the Latin adjective innocuus (“harmless, innocent”), comprised of the elements in- “not” and nocuus “injurious”.

As far as I can remember, the first time I ever heard this word was while watching the movie Stranger Than Fiction. It sounded like an interesting word (though that may have been due in part to Emma Thompson’s lovely British accent), so I made a note to look it up, and have since included it a few times in my own writing. Although it may just seem like a fancy alternative to “harmless”, I find that when used once in a while, “innocuous” can add a certain charming note to a narrative that more common words like “harmless” and “innocent” seem to lack. Too much advanced vocabulary in your stories might be annoying, but using intermediate words in moderation is, in this writer’s opinion, an innocuous act.

What are your thoughts on this word? Any suggestions for future “Word of the Week” featured words?

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