Oxford University Press's
Academic Insights for the Thinking World

From the life of words, part 2

I am picking up where I left off last week. At first sight, nothing could be more straightforward than the adjective still. It has always meant “fixed, not moving.” We sit still, come to a standstill, and enjoy still lifes (that is, pictures of living things in a state of rest). The Germanic cognates of the English word mean the same. One short step separates still “motionless” from still “silent,” known from dialectal use and the idiom the small still voice (that is, the voice of consciousness; we’ll return to consciousness below).

Nature morte, or still life. We still enjoy Snyders and the works of his contemporaries.

Given such facts, the adverb still “without change of position” does not come as a surprise. Yet this is where the danger lurked. Phrases like still better appeared only in the sixteenth century, and before the eighteenth century, one could not say: “I still have the same address” or “I am still busy” (that is, “I was busy some time ago, and I am busy right now”). Shakespeare’s contemporaries would have taken the latter statement for “I am always busy.” In Elizabethan English, still means “constantly, forever.” It is easy to misinterpret Shakespeare’s still-vexed “constantly troubled” and heaven still (= forever!) move about her! His still in the plays and in the sonnets means only this.

The shorter the time distance between us and the texts written in the past, the greater the danger of misunderstanding them. While reading Beowulf, we dutifully look up every word in the glossary and the grammar, but we tend to take Shakespeare’s English for granted, the more so as half of his lines are familiar quotations. “Thus conscience does make cowards of us all.” Conscience? No, thought! On the other hand, Cassius, the man who, it will be remembered, had a lean and hungry look, aroused Caesar’s distrust: “He thinks too much. Such men are dangerous.” What is wrong with thinking too much? Nothing whatsoever, except that in Shakespeare’s usage think also meant “brood.”

Things change because they may. Words also obey this law. Once we name something, we create a potential for ambiguity. Such a simple word as table can, in principle, designate anything table-like (a slab or a flat surface). People played backgammon and called the game tables (hence the idiom to turn the tables “to reverse the situation”). Who could predict this development? Even the sense of table “an arrangement of numbers, etc.” is far from trivial. Every word, once coined, tends to behave like an octopus. Consider our usage: “The Chair tabled the proposal.” Ridiculous but common.

Getting ready to turn the tables.

Especially puzzling are some gigantic leaps, such as can be seen while comparing cognates. After all, cognates are like children born to the same parents, and one expects at least a semblance of similarity between and among them. Yet the results are often truly amazing. Here are three words: Engl. dapper “neat, trim; elegant,” a borrowing from Dutch; German tapfer “bold, brave,” and Old Icelandic dapr “sad, dreary” (Modern Icelandic dapur is the same word). The English adjective can be disregarded, because it reproduces the sense of the word in Dutch. Thus, we have the evidence from three related languages—German, Dutch, and Icelandic—and three meanings: “brave,” “neat,” and “sad.” How is this possible?

First, we notice that in Middle Dutch, the word meant “heavy, weighty, firm” and that a very probable Slavic cognate (for instance, Russian debelyi, stress on the second syllable) also means “plump, heavy”; moreover, the root debel– reemerges in the noun doblest’ “military courage, etc.” (this is again Russian; initial stress; e and o alternate by ablaut). Etymologists reconstruct the root meaning “heavy.” The distance from “heavy” to “firm” is not long. Those who have read the post on sleeveless errand may remember that I ventured to derive this idiom (it means or rather meant, because it is hopelessly obsolete, “a useless, futile endeavor”) from the customs of medieval knighthood. A firm, brave man was, most likely, also a knight. Such a warrior with his full armor on, sword, lance and all, must have weighed close to half a ton. Since beauty is in the eye of the observer, it will cause no surprise that our knight was thought of as a trim, elegant person. But why was he sad? This is probably the other side of being heavy, for “heavy” can produce the idea expressed by the phrase “bowed down.”

One can also approach the problem from a different angle. Are “heavy” and “neat” related concepts? The answer is a matter of opinion. In some societies, a plump, “buxom” woman embodies the ideal of beauty (just look at Rubens’s goddesses), while in others the greatest virtue consisted in being slim. What is true of women is also true of men. Mr. Pickwick would have lost all his attraction if he had lost weight. Early on, Dickens says that his hero was not obese, for obese is an ignoble word (he could not predict the long life of this adjective!), but corpulent. If heaviness produces sadness, we have explained everything. To boost the argument, may remember that in the history of the English adjective sad, the following stages have been recorded: “sated, weary; steadfast, firm; grave, serious, sorrowful, solid, dense,” and even “dark-colored.” Satiety and satisfaction (both from Romance) shed an additional light on the situation. Incidentally, buxom, mentioned above, goes back to –būhsum (compare German biegsam) “pliant,” and at one time it meant “blithe, merry.” Dickens’s buxom matrons are usually nice.

This is Rubens. His women are brave, somewhat heavy, always neat, and never sad.

One wonders how reliable this legerdemain is. Can one prove anything, depending on “bricolage”? No, not anything, though some examples of semantic reconstruction are embarrassing. In the case discussed above, we have three meanings: “brave,” “neat,” and “sad.” They are an ill-assorted group; yet they seem to belong together. The alternative is uninviting. We can say that the phonetic affinity (especially when it comes to “brave” and “sad”), though striking, is fortuitous, and deny their “family ties.” This result is probably worse that the airy bridge constructed between such divergent senses. Ten years ago, I wrote a blog, partly devoted to the amazing etymology of the word mad (4 July 2007 “There Are More Ways than One of Being Mad”; July 4, I believe, is as good a day for going crazy as any other). The cognates of mad are even more astounding than those of dapper.

As noted above, a major source of semantic change is the ambiguity inherent in most concepts. For instance, gratuitous means “freely given; spontaneous.” Gratuitous medical assistance is good, but gratuitous cruelty is shocking. We welcome compromise, but people are seldom pleased when they are compromised. This is how the same word can acquire positive and negative connotations. Both manage to coexist and are disambiguated only by the context in which they occur. The history of the word sin, to which a recent series was devoted, gives ample evidence of this phenomenon. That is why words sometimes “turn around,” as it were. Restive meant “at rest; inactive, inert.” A restive horse refused to move or follow a course; hence restive “impatient, hard to control; unable to keep still.” The root of Engl. begin (-gin) may be related to kon-, the root of Russian konets “end” (final stress). And so it goes.

The hero of A room with a View says: “I have secret charms.” Words do too.

Image credits: (1) “Still life with small dead game and fruit” by Frans Snyders, Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons. (2) “Backgammon” by Ptkfgs, Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons. (3) “Erichthonius discovered by the daughters of Cecrops.” by Peter Paul Rubens, Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Recent Comments

  1. Ian Ritchie

    In addition to the humorous thought of a “chair” “tabling” something, it should be noted that this sentence has opposite meanings in British and American usage. In British parliamentary usage, “to table” something means to place it on the table for consideration. In American parliamentary usage, “to table” something means to place it on the table for postponement or suspension of consideration. Another example of two nations separated by a common language.

Comments are closed.