Nothing is Perma'meant' but Change

By Rob Kyff

April 28, 2021 3 min read

We tend to think of words as immutable objects — solid rocks we fit together to construct the stone walls of our sentences. But, in fact, words are more like living organisms; they're always adjusting, changing and sometimes completely transforming their spellings, pronunciations and especially their meanings.

The meaning of the English word "nice," for instance, has evolved from an ugly larva, to comely pupa, to beautiful butterfly. Derived from the Latin "nescius" (not knowing, ignorant), "nice" meant "foolish" when it entered English during the 1200s.

But during the next 500 years it came to mean just about everything at one time or another: lascivious, modest, thin, strange, shy, elegant, slothful and precise (a meaning that still survives in the term "nice distinction").

Around 1600, "nice" actually held two different meanings at once. In "Julius Caesar," for instance, William Shakespeare used "nice" to mean "trivial" ("it is not meet / That every nice offence should bear his comment"), but in "Henry IV, Part 2," he used it to mean "vile" ("every idle, nice, and wanton reason"). Not until the 1700s did "nice" take on its present meaning of "pleasing, agreeable."

The meanings of many words ascended in status from negative to positive definitions, a semantic process called "melioration." "Brave," for instance, once described someone who puts on a false front of courage, a meaning that still survives in "bravado."

By contrast, through a semantic process called "pejoration," the meanings of some words have fallen from grace. In Middle English, for instance, "villein" referred to a feudal serf. But, perhaps because such peasants were often associated with brutish behavior, the modern English version of "villein" ("villain") came to mean a scoundrel.

One of the most dramatic examples of pejoration is "lewd," which originally meant simply "of the laity," that is, people who are not members of a given profession. Because such people were not in the know, "lewd" came to mean ignorant and then descended even further to mean "wicked" and, eventually, "lascivious."

Sometimes a word undergoes a complete reversal of meaning. "Timorous," for example, once meant "causing fear, terrifying." But over the centuries it came to mean "fearful, terrified," as in the "wee, sleekit, cow'rin', tim'rous beastie" described by Robert Burns in his poem "To a Mouse."

The meanings of many words, like the schemes of mice and men, "gang aft a-gley."

Rob Kyff, a teacher and writer in West Hartford, Connecticut, invites your language sightings. Send your reports of misuse and abuse, as well as examples of good writing, via email to [email protected] or by regular mail to Rob Kyff, Creators Syndicate, 737 3rd Street, Hermosa Beach, CA 90254.

Photo credit: Stergo at Pixabay

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