We humans

5 words that don’t mean what they used to mean

Oct 25, 2016 /
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“Words over time have a way of just oozing around,” says linguist John McWhorter. He traces the evolution of five words that have spent millennia drifting from one meaning into another.

Those fond of books on language may be familiar with one facet of the inherent changeability of words’ meanings. It is traditionally covered that meanings have either broadened or narrowed over time. That indeed happens. Take dog, for instance. When hound was the normal word for a canine, dog was a word for a big, fierce sort of dog. Over time, it came to be used as the all-purpose word for dog. That was a classic case of semantic broadening, paralleled by the narrowing of the scope of hound, which now refers only to a dog used for hunting (Chihuahuas aren’t hounds).

Many words have narrowed under the radar, in certain usages. “Does he drink?” is a question about alcohol, not whether the person imbibes liquids in general. In the old days — roughly the first half of the twentieth century — the question “Do you like music?” referred to classical music; no one questioned whether a person enjoyed a pop tune, a jig or a lullaby. That assumption that “music” refers to classical is now antique, but lives on in how readily a textbook, or even trade book, on classical music can be titled as about “music” as if Brahms and Schoenberg are somehow the default conception of music, with rock, jazz, hiphop, Peruvian huayno music, and Indian ragas somehow not “music music.” More subtly, today’s discussions about the value of “reading” presuppose that the topic is fiction: “reading” is not assumed to include books about the Thirty Years’ War, the cosmos, or cod. In this vein, “language” in the conception of most people brings the printed word to mind first, with speech considered an afterthought. Hence questions such as “What is texting doing to language?” despite that it would be impossible to speak with capital letters or to utter a sequence of emoticons.

However, broadening and narrowing alone do not convey the essence of the matter. Alone, they imply that words’ meanings change in a clear direction, which feels intuitive, only minorly transformative. Meat, say, was first used to refer to all food (hence candy being called sweetmeat) but narrowed to refer to flesh. But the change was pretty cozy as change goes — all within one realm of things, food. Yet in reality the main meal, so to speak, is plain old drift, along the lines of the pathway from blessed to silly, where the issue is less broadening or narrowing than simply transformation. Broadening and narrowing happen, but a more general characterization of words over time is that they have a way of just oozing around. Bird is an example. It started as a word meaning a baby animal, but later became the word for flying animals. That’s a lateral shift – neither more nor less specific, just different. (The old word for flying animal was fugol, which narrowed into today’s fowl, referring to certain barnyard birds and ones like them.) A word we utter is usually just the latest stage in tens of millennia of drifting from one meaning into another.

Here are five examples of merry morphings from points quite distant, that nevertheless seem so eternal, as if they had never been anything but themselves.

1. Audition

Shouldn’t audition mean in terms of what we otherwise expect of the aud– root? Audio comes to mind, as well as audiovisual, audiology, etc. Yet audition immediately brings to mind someone trying out for a part in a play or film. That’s only because of implication and drift.

When it first appeared in English, borrowed from Latin, audition indeed meant “hearing.” When a doctor recommended a substance that “draweth all out which is in the Eares, and administreth good auditione,” he meant that having your ears clear of whatever the disgusting stuff was, your hearing got better, not that it got you a part in the latest production of Henry V.

However, naturally, tryouts for such productions might naturally come to be called “hearings,” as they involved listening to someone recite. If one wanted to fancy up the word “hearing” a bit, a tendency hardly unlikely among writerly sorts, then the term would be audition. To people in the late 19th century who first started using audition in that way, the word would have meant what it sounded like; the component of hearing in the word would have been intuitively felt. In fact, the word was first used for musical tryouts, where sound was indeed all that mattered, as opposed to appearance and movement.

However, after a while, audition came to be used solely in reference to tryouts for performances, while elsewhere, hearing became the word English speakers beyond medical practitioners used to refer to the perception of sound. Then implication settled in: if it’s an audition when someone gets up and sings, then it hardly seems unreasonable to call it an audition as well when the next person gets up and does an acrobatic trick. Today, one could audition to be a mime. To an Elizabethan, that usage would sound as strange as doing tai chi to get a part in La Bohème.

2. Commodity

We are accustomed to hearing the term commodity used to refer to certain staple products whose quality is largely invariant no matter the producer, such as salt and crude oil. More precisely, commodities are associated with futures contracts offered to producers of them, which guarantee a uniform price regardless of fluctuations in the market — good for the seller when the market is down, and for the contract holder when the market is up. That is an almost viciously specific usage for a term that even people outside of finance are regularly confronted with. However, the temptation to blame financiers for wanting to keep their business obscure is unnecessary.

Commodity was first a word about comfort, as in accommodation. A 1488 book printed by the pioneer printer of English William Caxton dismisses certain men who excessively “encline to the rest and commodity of the body.” Anyone would spontaneously extend that meaning to things that make one comfortable and are therefore, in themselves, commodities. Thus by 1615 there were usages such as describing the god Vulcan as “the first that found out the commodity of fire.” Fire would have been as novel and invaluable a comfort, i.e. a commodity, to earlier man as eye pillows and Jack Daniels are to us now.

But from there, it’s a short step to thinking of a whole class of staple items as basic commodities of life, such that the word that began as describing the pleasure of spreading out on a sofa was now applied to soybeans heaped cold and dirty in a freight car in January. All that’s needed to get from there to now is the incorporation of products like that into a futures market, such that commodities are discussed less in themselves than as a shorthand for futures contracts based on them that yield an abstract form of recompense. From stretching out after a long day to a soybean to an intangible and vaguely seedy financial arrangement — step by step.

3. Fine

Fine comes from French’s fin which means end. Even in French the word had morphed — one way of being at the end of something is to be at the top of the line, the ultimate; i.e. the best. Think of the quaintish expression even in English “the living end” to praise something. Hence fin meant both “end” as well as “of high quality,” and the latter meaning is what made it into English. “Men findis lompis on the sand Of ter, nan finer in that land,” says the historical chronicle Cursor Mundi around 1300 — “You find lumps on the sand of tar, none finer in that land.” Tar? I know; tastes vary, but we can accept that if one were into tar, certain lumps of it could qualify as fine indeed — as in solid, lovely, and exquisite (I’m trying!).

In any case, we still use fine that way in a fine day or a fine rendition.

However, notice that those usages are a touch quaint in feel, and meanwhile, the word has moved along elsewhere. Most immediately, most would associate fine with the meaning “delicate” — fine lace, fine distinctions. That is based on implication: one way for something to be of high quality is to be made with delicate precision. If things of that nature are referred to as fine with enough frequency, people will start to link the word not just to high quality, but to more specific things like delicate tracery, doily patterns, just the right violin, dainty walks, and so on.

Meanwhile, those who would not think of the “delicate” meaning might mention the usage “I’m fine” in response to being asked how one is doing. Here, the meaning is neither “exquisite” as a lump of tar nor “delicate” like lace, but a wan assurance that one is unhurt (“Oh, I’m fine — it was just a scratch.”). Emotional and social expressions have a way of watering down with use. Goodbye started as “God Be With You,” darn started as eternal damnation, lol started as “laughing out loud.” I’m fine began as meaning one was terrific, with that earlier meaning of fine (i.e. in the sense that requires us today to say we are “great” or “fantastic”), but gradually whittled down with centuries of use into meaning “I’m not dead.”

Thus the answer to “What does fine mean?” is richer than we might suppose, because words don’t sit still. The word we see at the end of a French film meaning end – “FIN” – in English has a different meaning before a noun (a fine day) than after it (My father is fine), and elsewhere refers to the texture of a hairnet. Then, let’s not even get into the fine that you can be given for parking in the wrong place, which is, indeed, another drifting from that same word that once just meant “end.”

4. Minority

Minority in American English has taken on, via implications, a meaning quite far from what the word originally referred to. One may even never have occasion to consider that minority’s “real” meaning is supposed to be “the smaller portion.” What began as a technical and euphemistic reference to people of color was used in that way so often that today, in the minds of American English speakers minority refers specifically to people of the color in question — brown. That is, minorities are considered to be black and Latino people. Minority feels forced when applied to other groups, even when they too constitute numerical minorities of the population. The word has always felt somewhat awkward applied even to Asians, and when whites technically become a numerical minority in the United States, minority will not be transferred to them.

Rather, to the extent that the term survives, it will likely continue to be applied to black and Latino people, especially in more casual conversations, even when Latinos outnumber whites. “We’re all minorities now!” some will point out — upon which most will guiltily feel that the word doesn’t feel right when applied to whites. That feeling will be justified, since in its demographic usage, minority ceased to be a numerical term sometime in the seventies, whatever the dictionary definition specifies. Word meanings drift as always, this time from referring to a proportion to referring to darkly-complected people. “He’s a minority” — imagine how queerly illogical that sentence would sound to someone transported to our times from 1600. “A minority of what?”

5. Merry

Merry started out meaning “short,” believe it or not. But that which is short is often pleasant, since so many things go on too long. Note how pastime (as in passing the time), for example, connotes the joys of brevity contravened by Die Walküre and Apocalypse Now. After a while, a word that first meant “short” meant “short and sweet” and finally, just sweet. Meanwhile, earlier English did have the word short itself, but even it had once meant something different, “sliced off” — that which is cut off is often a short thing, hence …

The joyous meaning of merry was a beautiful demonstration of the element of chance in how words’ meanings move along. The earliest rendition we can get a sense of for merry is that on the Ukrainian steppes several thousand years ago, in the ancestor to most of today’s European languages, it was mregh. In Greece, this word for short morphed not into merriment but into the word for upper arm, brakhion. The sounds in mregh and brakh match better than it looks on paper: for one thing, both m and b are produced by putting your lips together and so it’s easy for one to change into the other. As to meaning, it was a matter of implications, this time in one of the things the word was applied to rather than the word itself. The upper arm is shorter than the lower, and hence one might start referring to the upper arm as the “shorter,” and the rest was history. Calling your upper arm your “shorter” is not appreciably odder than calling cut-off pants shorts, after all.

The process never stops. It seems that in Latin this brakh ended up, among other places, in a pastry; namely, one resembling folded arms, called a brachitella. Old High German picked that up as brezitella; by Middle High German people were saying brezel. Today, brezel is pretzel — from that same word that meant short and now connotes joyousness in English. In France, that “brach” root drifted into a word referring to shoulder straps, or by extension, a child’s little chemise undershirt. Women can wear chemises too, but garments, like words, have a way of changing over the centuries, and after a while the brassière had evolved into more specific anatomical dedication than a chemise’s. The modern word bra, then, is what happens when a word for “short” drifts step-by-step into new realms. Merry, pretzel and bra are, in a sense, all the same word – and yet contests could be held challenging people to even use all three in a sentence (or at least one that made any sense).

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This is an edited excerpt from Words on the Move: Why English Won’t – and Can’t – Sit Still (Like, Literally) by John McWhorter (Henry Holt, 2016).