I’ve been thinking about outrage since listening to an episode of NPR’s “Hidden Brain,” “How Outrage Is Hijacking Our Culture, and Our Minds,” which originally aired on October 9. The episode centers on the research of Yale psychologist Molly Crockett, who has written that “moral outrage is all the rage online,” and that “digital media may exacerbate the expression of moral outrage by inflating its triggering stimuli, reducing some of its costs and amplifying many of its personal benefits.”
This week, a lot of outrage is directed at a phenomenon with an unrelated but similar-looking name: outage. I’m not the only one.
“Outage outrage”: Washington Post headline on an October 23 Associated Press story about PG&E’s precautionary power shutoffs in a large area of California for the third time this month. PG&E, which is publicly owned, is the largest utility in the state, serving—or, lately, not serving—some 16 million people from Eureka in the north to Santa Barbara in the south, and from the Sierra Nevada to the Pacific. My own Oakland ZIP code has been unaffected by the shutoffs, but large portions of neighboring Berkeley have been without power, off and on, for days. And in Sonoma County, where the Kincade Fire has been gobbling up territory since October 23, a majority of residents have no electricity.
If you look at outrage and see out plus rage, you are far from alone. But outrage had little to do with anger when it entered English from French, around 1300: It meant extravagance; or excess; or confusing, disorderly behavior. It wasn’t out plus rage, it was outré—an adjective that means bizarre, unconventional, going beyond accepted limits—plus the noun-forming suffix -age. Ultra-ness, to put it in a parallel way. The second syllable originally rhymed not with cage but with the endings of other -age nouns like personage, hermitage, and message.
Gradually, outrage shed its Middle English meanings, and by the 18th century it had taken on its contemporary sense: “gross or malicious wrong or injury done to feelings, principles” or “an action or situation which provokes indignation, shock, anger,” according to the OED. The pronunciation of the suffix changed, too, “perhaps encouraged by the combined influence of the adjective outrageous, in which the stress falls on the a, and the unrelated word rage.”
Outage is a much newer word, and a bit of a linguistic outlier. When it first appeared, in 1851, it referred to the amount of something lost in transportation. Forty years later it came to mean a power failure or power cut.
Outage is unusual because the majority of our -age words attach that suffix to a noun (personage, footage, usage, parentage) or a verb (wreckage, spillage, leakage). A few -age compounds have adjectives as stems (shortage, Out is an adverb or a preposition; in outage it’s adverbial. The only other adverb/preposition + -age I can think of is overage (surplus). Overage and outage—and also shortage—were mid-19th-century US inventions, all originating in the fledgling railroad industry.
We have outage but not innage, overage but not underage (well, not in the complementary sense), shortage but not longage. English is a peculiar langu-age.