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from the ronsdale press


Howard Richler


Howard 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.


Although 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.

In 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.”

Let 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.

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.”

We 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 pens.

Originally 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.

Words 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.

Also 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.

Many 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.”

For more of Howard Richler at Arts & Opinion:
Linguistic Correctness Redux
No Apology for Neology
The Enigmatic Palindrome
We Stand on Cars and Freeze
As You Like It.
Can I Have a Word With You

The Significant Other Conundrum

The Oxfordization of Poutine


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