This & That

Story published: 11-14-2012 • Print ArticleE-mail Story to a Friend

Words change meaning over time

By Jack Swift

I’m not an etymologist but on a limited basis I often wonder about the origin of words and sometimes I even take the time to trace the history of words out of curiosity if nothing else. Etymology is the study of words, their history and how they came to be. Often the study of words is quite interesting. Some mean the opposite of what they meant originally.

It is interesting to note that whoever coined the phrase, “sticks and stones may break my bones, but words can never harm me,” really didn’t know what he or she was talking about. Words can be destructive and overwhelming. Sticks and stones may surly break bones, but words can break an individual’s will. One of the best illustrations concerning words use the concept of a feather filled pillow. When all the feathers of a pillow are released into the wind, they all can never be found. Just so, when false words, gossip, and other mean spirited words are spread, they can never be gathered back again.

Anyway, being a wordsmith of sorts over several years has piqued my interest in words. Therefore I thought I would share some words that have changed a lot since they were originally used in the distant past. Take the word “quiz.” According to Webster’s Dictionary, the original meaning was an eccentric person or a practical joke. Now it means a short oral or written test. Many of a student has dreaded those times when they knew a quiz was coming up, especially, if they had not studied as much as they should have. Another word that has changed a great deal is “disease.” Originally the word meant a slight discomfort such as being cold as a result of not wearing adequate clothes (not at ease). Now, of course, it means a serious illness. The word “carpet” means a floor covering but many years ago the word meant a woolen wraparound garment that was worn by certain religious people. It was often used for a bed covering or a tablecloth before it became used as a covering for a floor.

The word “browse” was originally the short twigs and grass that a cow nibbled in the pasture. To say a cow is browsing in the pasture is to say the cow is nibbling on the grass. Today it means to read here and there to get some idea of what a book is about. When a book- store sign says to “come in and browse” it means to come in and look through the store’s books and hopefully buy one.

The word “nice” means almost the opposite of what it meant originally. Nice now means refined, pleasing, agreeable, but many years ago it meant wanton, dissolute or coy. I read somewhere that the word “fan” that we use to describe someone who has a great interest in a certain hobby, sport, music or some other activity was a fanatic and the word “fan” was shortened from the longer word.

My readers probably already know the English language is a changing language. There have been many words that have changed over time. Too, words are added to our language each year due to new technology and other reasons.

Whether it is the study of words or perhaps the study of some other interesting things in life, it is important to continue to use the brain. There are many things lovely and good and we should dwell on them. The famous poet Robert Louis Stevenson wrote, “The world is so full of a number of things, I’m sure we should all be as happy as kings.”