It was Singapore’s law minister’s use of the word some years ago which first struck me as interesting. I think most of us are familiar with the sense of the word that suggests playful troublemaking, but it was the sense of ‘intended to cause harm or trouble’ that Mr. Shanmugam was using, to refer to the actions of someone or other who was being sued for defamation/contempt/something else in that vein. Hearing the word used while being less familiar with the second sense, it had an interesting effect, because, as I interpreted the situation, he was attempting to highlight the seriousness of the litigant’s actions. However, then I had associated the word with playfulness.
The question I considered with this GloWbE search was how likely my experience was to be shared by other Singaporeans, or English speakers elsewhere.
One interesting result is regarding the absolute popularity of the word (as indicated by the darkness of the shading). The darkest shades were for Nigeria, Ghana, and Sri Lanka. In the next tier were India, Pakistan, Jamaica, Malaysia, and Singapore. The word was light-shaded everywhere else, though interestingly it does better in GB (677) than in the US (464). This might be significant especially if the US-attributed corpus is more extensive.
One interesting pattern is that the popularity of the word is low across Kachru’s inner-circle countries (the first six ccTLDs in the GloWbE results). As for the other places where it is unpopular, we had two African countries where it was popular, but it is less popular in Tanzania, Kenya, and South Africa. It is fairly popular in South Asia, except for Bangladesh. As for the Caribbean, Jamaica is the only major ccTLD represented in GloWbE.
These are interesting results, in that British colonial history is not clearly a good explanatory factor, since all the countries in the African region were under British rule at some point (probably why they’re in GloWbE in the first place). This may partly be a problem with sample size, however, because the numbers outside of the inner-circle are low across the board, with the probable exception of India. (To illustrate, light-shading applied to Australia with 257 and the US with 464, while India is a shade darker at 257. Dark-blue shaded Nigeria and Ghana are at 212 and 187 respectively.)
What might be a less weak conjecture is that the word is more popular where there has been influence from India or the diaspora. This would account for Jamaica (the West Indies having been a major destination of Indian emigration) and South Asia (with the exception of Bangladesh), as well as the low popularity of the word in Hong Kong and the Philippines. However, this works less well for Africa, since Kenya and South Africa have had similar or greater influence than Ghana or Nigeria.
While the results about geographic spread are interesting though inconclusive, the semantic analysis is less equivocal. Where ‘mischievous’ is more frequently used, the second (negative) sense seems more likely to be used.
In Nigeria and Ghana, it is often a testimony, accusation, ploy, etc. that is ‘mischievous’, though the other sense is not absent either (‘mischievous little raccoon’). In Jamaica, we get ‘deletrious and mischievous’, and in Sri Lanka, we get ‘mischievous and presumptive’, ‘mischievous oversimplification’, and (my favorite) ‘mischievous mystification of history’. In Jamaica and Sri Lanka the less malign sense is common too (e.g. ‘mischievous grin’ and ‘mischievous smile’). However, even where the less malign sense is employed, one could argue that its influence is not absent, e.g. ‘with a wicked yet mischievous smile’.
In contrast, in the US (and also the Philippines), this sense appears far less popular, relative to the other sense. A dog is mischievous, and a piece of music is called ‘playful and mischievous’. A contrasting example would be the ‘mischievous fact’ a book reviewer points out, in an argument he appears to be critical of. (While I’m not entirely sure from the sample snippet if this reviewer is against ‘cyber-utopianism’, I think it is safe to assume that he is not suggesting that the fact is playful, or that playing with facts is more culturally acceptable.)
Comparing this to the US, in the UK a semantic ambiguity, a survey about religion, and a ‘sinister purpose’ are called ‘mishievous’. We also get ‘mischievous’ in two related articles about a medical disease (one appears to be the same article as the .jm-attributed ‘deletrious and mischievous’). However, the other sense is also present (e.g. dogs, birds, a Playboy compilation).
In Singapore, Malaysia, and Hong Kong, the results are more evenly mixed (though I might declare a slight positive leaning in Hong Kong). On the negative side, we have a mischievous comment (.sg), mischievous reasons for accessing a database (.my), and North Korea’s mischievous behavior (.hk). In Singapore, Malaysia, and Hong Kong, we have mischievous tricks and mischievous boys. Regarding this character of the mischievous boy, this was the familiar, pre-Shanmugam usage of the term for me, and interestingly it appears quite localized.
Finally, I looked at the results from Bangladesh and South Africa, two countries which appeared to be anomalies in our consideration of the geographic spread. However, here I found that the negative sense was common, with ‘mischievous motives’ (.bd) and this interesting example from South Africa (.za): ‘To say he is injury prone as a result of these two unfortunate injuries is mischievous!’ This was actually the top result in GloWbE for .za, and I think it’s an interesting example because it’s nominally about a sports league: a playful pursuit, surely? especially since the sentence ends with a ‘!’ – though I suppose there are those who hold that rugby is a serious business.
Overall, it seems ‘mischievous’ might be something quite close to, if not exactly a clear example of, a contronym (non-technically, a word that means both itself and its opposite, like ‘sanction‘ – though this has been called an auto-antonym). On the one hand, we have (1) serious-mischievous, which tends to be bad-mischievous; while on the other we have (2) playful-mischievous, which is, presumably, lovable only insofar as it is not serious.
In this respect, ‘mischievous’ seems similar to the word ‘provocative’ – provocative good, or provocative bad? One can imagine both. Sometimes ‘mischievous’ and ‘provocative’ collocate, which I suppose gives us 4 ways to be mischievously provocative.
But perhaps a better analysis is that serious-mischievous is serious because of context. Reasons and motives are mischievous when the contention is legal, political, or otherwise public-related; and even the relatively uncommon medical context seems to bleed some of that seriousness into the bad-ness of ‘mischievous’. In the UK, serious-mischievous might also fairly high-brow. It applies to characters in plays (‘a mischievous slave who would do just about anything for his freedom’), and comes up fairly often in reviews of plays, books, and art (especially if it could be called a reinterpretation of something else). The cultured/intellectual frame of the word is also one of the less-infrequent uses of serious-mischievous in the US.
To attempt a sum up, it appears sense (1) applies to human reasons, motives, and considered conduct, while (2) applies to animals and the human personality (or at least, those parts of human personality commonly regarded as less-considered).
Comments on GloWbE-aided analysis
There are clearly some limitations to the GloWbE-aided analysis, e.g. size of country samples unclear, some very small samples, attribution via ccTLDs, etc. To illustrate, perhaps this WordPress blog post will push the frequency-count for mischievous higher once it gets incorporated, and if it does will it count under .∅ (I mean the US) or .sg? However I think my main takeaway from this exercise is that looking for collocations would not have given rise to the description of the (1)/(2) contrast I posited. More generally, I suspect a machine-reading of the corpus would not have easily identified this contrast, even with a sophisticated syntactic parser.
More recently (2013), Mr. Shanmugam used the word ‘mischievous’ again, but this time he made his meaning more transparent: ‘ “Any forms of cyber attacks or threats are actually threats on the people regardless if the intent was malicious or mischievous,” he added.’