In a recent review in the Guardian newspaper of a biography of Marie Corelli, the reviewer remarked that “She was in effect the first of the lady novelist bestsellers, her books read by everyone from Queen Victoria to shop assistants. In her day she had been nothing short of a phenomenon”.
Now Marie Corelli existed — all too obviously as she was a lady of expansive attitudes and ample construction, though rather short of stature. So she was a phenomenon, all right, but that was surely something about which no special note needed to be taken. That is, if you use the word in the original sense given in the Oxford English Dictionary. There it is grandly defined as “a thing that appears, or is perceived or observed; an individual fact, occurrence, or change as perceived by any of the senses, or by the mind”. So anything we can observe is a phenomenon, which is as all-inclusive a term as one might wish.
But of course the writer was using the word in another sense. We find it further down the entry: “Something very notable or extraordinary; a highly exceptional or unaccountable fact or occurrence; colloquially a thing, person, or animal remarkable for some unusual quality; a prodigy”. By all accounts, Ms Corelli was most of those things.
What is mildly surprising is that this secondary meaning of the word is so old. The OED records it from 1771, and by the time that Dickens was writing Nicholas Nickleby in 1838 it was well established: “ ‘This, Sir’, said Mr. Vincent Crummles, bringing the maiden forward, ‘this is the infant phenomenon — Miss Ninetta Crummles’ ”.
The word itself goes back to the Greek phainomenon, a thing appearing to view, which is derived from phainein, to show. It’s also a relative of our phantom, diaphanous, fancy, fantasy and other words. It arrived in English as the plural, phenomena, which Francis Bacon is credited as introducing in his Advancement of Learning of 1605. In its early appearances, it was confined to what was then termed natural philosophy but which we would call science. Since then, it has acted as the root for John Stuart Mill’s phenomenalism and Edmund Husserl’s phenomenology, two theories in philosophy that I will go to any lengths to avoid explaining.
Notably, both senses, the scientific and popular, have survived alongside each other in the language for the better part of two centuries. Because they appear in such different contexts, they hardly conflict and neither has ousted the other.