Oblivious to or of?
A reader wonders why, “In modern usage, we hear…‘oblivious to’ more than we hear the correct usage.”
Writing about oblivious in 1926, H. W. Fowler felt that the word was “badly misused”:
1. Its right sense is no longer aware or no longer mindful; it is not simply unaware or unconscious or insensible.
2. Even when the word might bear its true sense of forgetful (as opposed to unaware), it is often followed by the wrong preposition (to). —Modern English Usage
Both of Fowler’s objections have been invalidated by time. Although oblivious is still used in the sense of forgetfulness, its usual sense nowadays is “unaware or unconscious of,” and either of or to is acceptable to use with it.
Some SAT preparation sites list of as the only option with oblivious, but others indicate that either of or to is acceptable. (The SAT is a battery of tests taken by high school students who intend to apply to university.)
The earliest documentation in the OED of the use of “oblivious to” in the sense of unaware is dated 1854: “The anti-reformer in Ireland is just as oblivious to the existence or the curability of evils there.”
Oblivious can be used without a preposition:
He’s the most oblivious man I’ve ever met.
Women Have a Sixth Sense, Men Are Oblivious
In cryptology, an “oblivious transfer protocol” is “a type of protocol in which a sender transfers one of potentially many pieces of information to a receiver, but remains oblivious as to what piece (if any) has been transferred.” Here oblivious means unaware.
In computing, there is something called a “cache-oblivious algorithm.” I’ve no intention of trying to explain that one.
Fowler concluded his entry on oblivious by suggesting that speakers could avoid problems by choosing a more common word to begin with:
The making of these mistakes is part of the price paid by those who reject the homely word, avoid the obvious, and look about for the imposing: forgetful, unaware, unconscious, unmindful, and insensible, while they usually give the meaning more precisely, lay no traps.
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