Richler is a Montreal-area word nerd and author of these seven
books on a variety of language themes: Dead Sea Scroll Palindromes,
Take My Words, A Bawdy Language, Global Mother Tongue, Can I
Have a Word With You?, Strange Bedfellows and his most
recent book, How
Happy Became Homosexual and Other Mysterious
Semantic Shifts ( May 2013, Ronsdale Press, Vancouver).
From his latest.
AND WHY THE MEANINGS OF WORDS MORPH
in the Middle Ages it is unlikely that gold fetched in the vicinity
of $1500.00 an ounce, we still should pity the Middle Ages alchemists
who futilely endeavoured to turn lead into gold. For all they
had to perform such a metamorphosis was to create a simple series
of synonym chains. Let me explain how this black art can be
completed. For example to turn black into white we follow the
following steps: Black-dark-obscure-hidden-concealed-snug-pleasant-easy-simple-pure-White
Macbeth's witches must have been on to something when they realized
that fair is foul and foul is fair because in the same manner
ugly transmogrifies into beautiful: Ugly-offensive-insulting-insolent-proud-lordly-majestic-grand-gorgeous-Beautiful.
This legerdemain doesn't appear as impressive when we reveal
that the word pretty originally meant cunning and that came
to mean beautiful through these set of stages: Pretty-cunning-clever-fine-nice-Beautiful.
In fact, we can empirically “prove” the veracity
of postmodern theory by showing how true is indeeed false: True-just-fair-beautiful-pretty-artful-artificial-fake-False.
fact, many words have undergone changes in meaning that allow
us to trace a similar process. For example, the word NICE originally
meant “foolish” or “stupid” in the 14th
century. Since then it has gone through the following progression
in meaning: nice- loose-mannered-foolish-wanton-lazy-effeminate-tender-delicate-shy-refined-fine-agreeable-kind-
pleasant. The word SHREWD originally meant “foolish”
and went through this semantic transformation: shrewd-depraved-wicked-naughty-abusive-calculating-artful-cunning-wise.
SAD went through this metamorphosis: sad-satiated-settled-mature-serious-unhappy.
Also, GAY went through a transformative process from its original
sense of “happy” to today's prevalent sense of “homosexual.”
us take it as settled: the meaning of words is dictated by popular
usage and words are always changing meanings through a variety
of processes. The first, and most important, process is metaphor.
in semantic change involves the addition of meanings due to
a semantic similarity or connection between the new sense and
the original one. The semantic change of “grasp”
from “seize" to “understand” can be seen
as a leap across semantic domains, from the physical sphere,
i.e, “seizing” to a mental one, “comprehending.”
In the same way when we refer to a person as a “rock”
or a “pillar of the community,” we are using the
words in a metaphorical fashion. Similarly, football adopted
the term blitz, a sudden massive military attack to refer to
a sudden charge into the offensive backfield by defensive players.
Broadcast originally meant “to cast seeds out” but
with the advent of radio and television, the word was used metaphorically
to refer to the transmission of audio and video signals. (In
agricultural circles, the original sense of broadcast is still
employed). Magazine originally referred to a storehouse (still
prevalent to refer to ammunition) and the periodical sense of
magazine sees the word metaphorically as a storehouse of words
and information. The word “myopia” surfaced in 1693
to refer to an inability to see distant objects clearly. By
1821, poet Charlotte Smith used it metaphorically in the phrase
“myopia of the mind.”
also have a process of generalization. For example, at one time
the word fabulous meant resembling a fable; then it meant incredible
because what is found in fables is incredible. Now it has weakened
even more and you can use it to describe a dress you like. Awful
is another example, it originally meant “inspiring awe”
but since what inspires awe isn’t always so pleasant,
it came to mean something negative. The original sense of awful
doesn’t even exist anymore. This process also works for
nouns and verbs. Originally a barn was a place you stored barley.
It was a compound of bere (barley) and aern (place). A mill
referred to specifically a place where you made meal. Once manufacture
was made by hand, saucers held sauce, pen knives fixed quill
assassin and thug referred to murderers who belonged to Eastern
religious sects only. Through the miracle of globalization westerners
too can be members of the fraternities of thugs and assassins.
also become narrowed. Deer once referred to any animal, meat
to any food, accident to any incident, actor to any doer, liquor
any fluid, hound any dog, meat any food, flesh any meat, fowl
any bird, doctor any learned person, garage any storage space
and starve just meant to die, not die due to lack of food.
because of the capricious nature of people, words are subject
to value judgements and go through processes of pejoration and
amelioration. Often this process is due to changes in society.
So knave once meant any boy, lewd referred only to the laity,
boor any peasant, vulgar only meant common. The movement away
from a feudal, agrarian lifestyle facilitated the deterioration
of these words. The value of words is often determined by groups
that possess power and boors and knaves drew the short stick.
On the other hand, noble that at first only referred to accident
of being born into an aristocratic family ameliorated to imply
one with a virtuous character. Women being relatively powerless
through most of the English language's recorded history have
seen its share of the pejoration process. Observe mistress,
governess, majorette to name just a few examples. They may have
commenced as equivalent to mister, governor, and major but all
have picked up negative or downmarket senses along the way.
words also go through what can be called a weakening process
in which the sense
of the word is toned down. Examples of such are adjectives such
as awful, dreadful, horrid, terrible; verbs such as annoy, baffle,
bruise and confound and the nouns scamp and friend, thanks to
Facebook. Less often, some words strengthen. One sees this process
with censure, disgust and gale. Originally censure meant any
opinion, disgust merely meant “not like” and gale
meant “light wind.”
more of Howard Richler at Arts & Opinion:
Apology for Neology
Stand on Cars and Freeze
You Like It.
I Have a Word With You
The Significant Other Conundrum
Oxfordization of Poutine