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From the life of words, part 1

From time to time, various organizations invite me to speak about the history of words. The main question I hear is why words change their meaning. Obviously, I have nothing new to say on this subject, for there is a chapter on semantic change in countless books, both popular and special. However, some of the examples I have collected over the years may pique the curiosity of our readers.

An especially striking phenomenon in the war of words or, more properly, the war of senses is how one, often accidental, meaning kills all the others. The result produces such a strong impression, because language change, a trivial phenomenon to a historical linguist, is seldom easy to observe, and amateurs often express surprise when told that language changes. Usually “the harm is done” behind the scenes.

The most noticeable examples occur in the tabooed sphere. I am a lifelong admirer of A. T. Hatto’s translations of the great Middle High German poems The Lay of the Nibelungen, Tristan, and Parzival. Gay knights are mentioned regularly in the three books. The translations appeared in the middle of the twentieth century. I remember that time well. Dickens’s character Walter Gay (Dombey and Son), the name of the poet John Gay (the author of The Beggar’s Opera), and the traditional rhyme May ~ gay sounded absolutely neutral. Today, students smile when they read about gay knights, though they of course know that gay here means “dressed for battle, in full gear and happy” (gaily and gaiety with reference to joy are still neutral!) and that in this context gay is a standard epithet. But the suppression of the traditional senses by the sense “homosexual” is remarkable. Even lay “song” provokes merriment.

John Gay, 1685-1732.

A truly catastrophic case is Horny Siegfried. The history of queer, a synonym for “odd,” is less dramatic. Both gay and queer are words of French origin, and both seem to have meant “bad, licentious” quite early, so that the family name Gay might have originated as an offensive “moniker,” but surely, Dickens had no intention of humiliating Florence Dombey’s prospective husband. Be that as it may, today, queer has only one meaning and cannot be used in any context outside the one so familiar to us.

A scene from John Gay’s The Beggar’s Opera.

Not only semantics but also phonetics may fall victim to unwanted associations.  Cony (or coney) has existed in English since the Middle period, and for a long time it rhymed with money, but the word occurs in the Bible and (the horror of it!) made people who read or heard Psalm CIV: 18 have less pious thoughts than expected, and the pronunciation of cony rhyming with bony was introduced. Hence the now accepted vowel in this word and in Coney Island.

I read in a nineteenth-century story: “Friendship matures with intercourse.” It certainly does, but who would write such a sentence today? The same shift, that is, the conquest of one sense to the destruction of all the others, is not a uniquely English phenomenon. German Verkehr can still be used with the traditional meaning “traffic, transportation”; yet one should be on one’s guard in using it elsewhere. Outside the genital sphere, I may mention the embarrassing word poop “the stern of the ship,” probably called this for good reason. In any case, stern is a more dignified name for the same part of the vessel. By contrast, unwanted associations may be forgotten. This is what, quite probably, happened in the history of the noun cake (think of caked with mud).  As a general rule, ignorance of etymology is a blessing.

Such examples can be easily multiplied. One more will suffice. Today, if you say that your friend Mr. X is very liberal, you probably imply that the said gentleman has strongly pronounced leftist views. Yet a liberal college, whatever its avowed aim, teaches the art considered “worthy of freeborn men”. This interpretation won’t surprise anyone who knows the words liberate and liberty. Both refer to freedom. But a free person may also be free in bestowing money (hence a liberal donation) and in not being restricted by a dogmatic interpretation of rules (hence a liberal interpretation of a law). We still understand all those senses. Yet out of context, liberal means “the opposite of conservative.” It may take the life of one or two generations for liberal “generous” to become as obsolete as gay “merry” and queer “odd” are to us. Queer studies has only one meaning. Soon liberal arts may be restricted to “arts opposed to conservative politics.” Words change, and words follow suit.

This is a flourishing liberal college.

A curious case is the recent history of the adjective niggardly “stingy.” The issue keeps turning up like a bad coin.  The word, which is of Scandinavian origin, has been current in English since Chaucer’s days. The verb niggle “to cause small discomfort, etc.” is also an import from the north. Again and again somebody feels offended by this adjective. The thesis about the blessings of etymological ignorance is irrefutable (if we always knew the extinct senses of the words we use, we would be unable to understand one another). Yet sometimes ignorance of etymology may have detrimental results. Nothing in the world is perfect, as the Fox said to Saint-Exépury’s Little Prince.

The word jury, a homophone of Jewry, does not seem to irritate anyone. Also, Americans usually pronounce due as do, and that is why undergraduates (and perhaps not only they) constantly write: “Is the paper do by the end of the semester?” But British speakers tend to pronounce due as Jew, and I am always amused to hear from them that, in order to join a certain learned society, one should only pay one’s “Jews.” Am I supposed to be offended? I hope not. Anyway, I live in America and pay my “do’s.”

The most traditional chapters on historical semantics deal with the deterioration and the amelioration of meaning. Yet the truly enigmatic situation occurs when the reference goes neither up nor down, but rather in an unpredictable direction. For example, there can be little doubt that the adjective quaint and the verb acquaint are related. The Medieval Latin etymon of acquaint is accognitare. Quite consistently, acquaint, also via Old French, goes back to Latin cognitus “known.” The root is immediately recognizable: consider cognate, cognition, recognize, and the less obvious reconnaissance. But the progression of senses in English is a riddle: “skilled, clever; skillfully made, fine, elegant” (so far, so good, even though we are already rather far from “known”), “proud, fastidious” (all those senses were recorded in the thirteenth century), then “strange, unfamiliar” (a century later), and finally, in the 1700’s, “uncommon but attractive.” Queer, isn’t it? The Oxford Dictionary of English Etymology, from which I borrowed the glosses for quaint, states: “The development of the main senses took place in Old French; some of the stages are obscure.” And so they are. If something is known, why should it become unfamiliar?

Your good acquaintance, a quaint old gentleman.

More along the same lines next week.

Image credits: (1) “John Gay” from a sketch by Sir Godfrey Kneller in the National Portrait Gallery, Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons. (2) “Painting of John Gay’s The Beggar’s Opera, Act 5” by William Hogarth, Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons. (3) “2016 Brooklyn College Library” by Beyond My Ken, CC BY-SA 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons. (4) “Aged black and white cane elderly” by  Nikola Savic, Public Domain via Pixabay. Featured image credit: “Jousting at the Pennsylvania Renaissance Faire” by Glenn Brunette, CC BY 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

Recent Comments

  1. John Cowan

    Queer ‘odd’ is still current when not applied to human beings. Looking in COCA, I find queer sight, queer smell, queer resonance, queer underlay, something queer, queer smile in the first 100 hits published in 2014-15. Granted, this is only 6%, but that is a long way from zero.

    Additionally, jury has /ʊ/ and Jewry has /u/ (with non-phonemic length) in Northeastern AmE, so they are a minimal pair rather than homonyms.

  2. Johan P

    The sense of the word liberal as described in the article seems to be a particular American usage; the same word in other engish-speaking countries has very different connotations, not least Australia where the biggest conservative party is the Liberal party. (The British Liberal Democrats are staunchly centrists.) Expanding to other languages, we’ve got my native Swedish, where liberal now near-universally means business-oriented right wing, neo-liberal. (I once saw a poster discussing “George W Bush’s Liberal Crusade” (“George W Bushs liberala korståg”), which would certainly perplex Americans.)

    Political words tend to just be more slippery than other words. There are bigger surprises among political parties than the Australian Liberal party – Jamaica’s (conservative) Labour Party, Denmark’s (right-wing) Venstre (“The Left”) and Portugal’s (conservative) Partido Social Democrata (“Social Democratic Party”) spring to mind.

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