Naive and Naivety

By Maeve Maddox

A reader asks about the use of the word naivety:

I recently read this in a copy of Nature: “They challenge the naivety of the idea that science, proceeding openly and aloof from its sociopolitical environment, reaches incontrovertible truths by unassailable reason.”

I do not recall ever seeing that use before.

Pronunciation note
naive [nye-EEV]
naivety [nye-EEV-uh-tee]

The adjective naive is a badly assimilated French borrowing. Ever since it entered the language as naïve in the seventeenth century, it never has managed to look like an English word, and it presents many English speakers with difficulty in pronunciation and spelling.

No longer spelled with the two dots over the i, naive originally meant “natural and unaffected, artless, or innocent.” Additional meanings that have attached to the word are “showing a lack of experience, judgment, or wisdom; credulous, gullible.”

The earliest citation for the noun naivety in the OED is dated 1709, but the word doesn’t show much life on the Ngram Viewer before the 1960s.

In current usage, some political writers seem to use naive and naivety as euphemisms for ignorant and ignorance.

Naivety is frequently used with the verb expose, as if to imply that being naive is something best concealed.

Sports writers are fond of the words as well, but I’ve yet to figure out exactly what they mean by them. My best guess is overconfident or, perhaps, ill-advised.

To me, naivety implies a belief in the good intentions of others. A judge handing down a sentence in the case of two people who stole from a ninety-year-old couple used the word in this sense:

They allowed you access [to their home] in innocence and naivety and…were repaid by you in taking the only items of value which were on open display.—The Telegraph.

Naive is an appropriate and neutral adjective to describe the innocence and inexperience of a young person. When applied to politicians and business leaders, it takes on a connotation of reproach, even contempt.

Here is a random sampling of naive and naivety as used on the Web:

Exposed: Ron Paul’s Foreign Policy Ignorance and Naivety

Is Stuart Lancaster just a naive coach taking another high-risk gamble? 

Manchester City Pay Heavy Price for First-Leg Naivety vs. Barcelona

Is Social Media making Young People Naïve and Unhappy? (Some writers still use the dots.)

For decades, senior executives have used naivety as an excuse when customer data has been stolen. 

Was [Chamberlain] just hopelessly naive about Hitler’s Germany and too embroiled in domestic agendas…to handle the run-up to war?

Both naive and naivety are useful words to convey trusting innocence or idealistic expectations. It seems a shame to use them as insults.

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11 Responses to “Naive and Naivety”

  • Steve

    Naviety? I’d always used the pretentious sounding, imported naivete (with diacriticals I can’t add here). Is there a difference, preference, or regional usage between these forms?

    Or am I just being naive?

  • Danny

    I’m with you, Steve. I can’t even recall seeing “naivety” in print before, although clearly it exists.

  • Kristy

    Interesting…I have never seen it spelled naivety before, always naiveté.

  • Charles

    Perhaps it’s merely our naïveté, but I’m with both of you.

  • thebluebird11

    I’m with Steve and Danny. Where did this Y come from at the end of the word? I must be suffering from naivete.

  • Steve

    Seems that Danny and BlueBird are in our own, naive place. Google Ngram reports that “naivety” is used much more widely than “naivete.”

    But not by us.

  • Greg

    I also was surprised there was no mention of the proper spelling of the word naivete. As Steve reports, Google Ngram shows far more listings for naivety, so we know that’s the wrong spelling. Does anybody have a dictionary that lists ‘naivety’ as the first spelling?

    None of mine do.

  • venqax

    I have not noticed naivety appearing that often, but I certainly applaud it. For some unknown reason, English has a terrible habit of not assimilating and anglicizing words it borrows as does most every other language (e.g. Spanish beisbol). Instead it attempts to maintain this odious hodgepodge of alien spelling and pronunciations that do not fit the language at all while expecting English-speakers (who, as we have seen here have enough trouble with mispronouncing English words. See 50 Incorrect Pronunciations To Avoid) It is a horror show.) But we keep jalapenos, paella, and faux pas and filet mignons unaltered from their uncorrelated written and oral versions. If the word naivety did not exist, it most definitelyshould. It has certainly been part of English for long enough to become an English word and in English naivete spells something like nye-veet or nay-veet.

  • Andy Knoedler

    Like others I was taken aback by the spelling of “naivety,” I must be reading the wrong publications because I’d never seen it with a y before.

  • Anne-Marie

    So glad I am not alone here with my preference for naivete over naivety. Naivety sounds and looks so awkward. I cannot recall ever encountering it before this post.

  • Maeve

    Re: spelling naivete vs naivety
    One of my favorite authorities for contemporary usage—Paul Brians—offers this advice:
    “Na¨ivet´e” [pretend the accents are over the i and the e] is the French spelling of the related noun in English. If you prefer more nativized spelling, “naivety” is also acceptable.

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