Word Porn

By SUE COLETTA

It’s fun to see how words change over time. Their meanings transform, expand, and even metamorphose into a whole new meaning. These changes occur gradually over time. I find it fascinating how one word used by our ancestors means something totally different today.

While researching my historical “ladies” (female serial killers) for Pretty Evil New England, I ran across numerous differences in spelling and definitions.

The process of words changing over time is called semantic narrowing, which is a type of semantic change by which the meaning of a word becomes less general or inclusive than its earlier meaning. In other words, any change in meaning(s) of a word over time — also called semantic shift, lexical change, and semantic progression.

Common types of semantic change include bleaching (where the semantics of a word reduces while the grammatical content increases), broadening (when the semantics of a word becomes broader or more inclusive than its earlier meaning), metaphor, and metonymy (a figure of speech or trope in which one word or phrase is substituted for its closely related cousin, such as “crown” for “royalty”).

Semantic change may also occur when foreign speakers adopt English expressions for use in their own social and cultural environment.

“We say that narrowing takes place when a word comes to refer to only part of the original meaning. The history of the word hound in English neatly illustrates this process. The word was originally pronounced hund in English, and it was the generic word for any kind of dog at all. This original meaning is retained, for example, in German, where the word Hund simply means ‘dog.’ Over the centuries, however, the meaning of hund in English has become restricted to just those dogs used to chase game in the hunt, such as beagles…”

“Words may come to be associated with particular contexts, which is another type of narrowing. One example of this is the word indigenous, which when applied to people means especially the inhabitants of a country which has been colonized, not ‘original inhabitants’ more generally.”

— Terry Crowley & Claire Bowen, An Introduction to Historical Linguistics, 4th ed. Oxford University Press, 2010

Etymologically, a hound dog translates to dog dog. 🙂

Another prime example of semantic narrowing is mouse and bookmark. Rather than an animal and a device used in place of a dog-earing a page, these words also refer to a computer mouse and online bookmark.

Where’s the Beef? (A nod to JSB’s post, Storytelling Lessons in 60 Seconds or Less 😉 )

If you were a vegetarian in Anglo-Saxon times, you still ate meat. In Old English the word mete referred to food in general. It wasn’t until the 1300s that the meaning of meat began to narrow to mean animal flesh. Even though meat still refers to the contents of a nut (i.e. almond meat) that’s not the first image that springs to mind.

The original sense of meat survived in sweetmeats, an old term for a type of candied treat.

Girl Power

The word girl (historically written as gurlegrile, and gerle) meant “a child” or “young person” of either sex. Today, of course, girl refers to a young female, though women of all ages use the word to refer to close friends. “Girl, you’re not gonna believe what he did this time.”

Along those same lines, woman comes from the Old English word wīfman, which literally means “wife-man.” I know, ladies. Just let the sexist definition roll off your shoulders. After all, I’m referencing a time when man meant any human.

Strangely enough, wife stems from the Old English word wīf, meaning any “woman, female” instead of today’s meaning: a married woman.

Doe a Deer, a Female Deer

When we think of the word deer, we imagine graceful animals, with or without antlers, who frolic in the woods. The word, however, stems from the Old English word dēor, meaning “beast,” especially a four-legged animal unlike a bird or fish. By the 1400s, deer morphed into its current Bambi-like designation.

Should we strive to be an awful writer? 

Don’t answer too quickly. In the 1200s, awful meant “full of awe.” It also meant “inspiring awe” or “reverential.” Later, awful referred to “causing fear and dread,” which contributed to the current meaning of “bad, unpleasant.”

Awesome evolved in the opposite direction, from “inspiring awe” to “great, excellent.” Though in some cases, its original meaning still holds true.

My, What an Egregious Gentleman

Sounds incorrect, doesn’t it? But back in the early 1500s, egregious meant “distinguished” or “eminent.” It comes from the Latin word egregius, meaning “preeminent” with a literal sense of “[standing] out from the flock.”

Naughty Villain

First recorded around 1340-1400, naughty meant “wicked, evil.” It also meant “poor, needy.” Naughty is formed from the Old English naught, meaning “nothing” or “wickedness.” It wasn’t until centuries later that the word transformed to refer to a misbehaving child or an adult engaged in risqué behavior.

Reserved Seating for Vulgar Only

Sometimes semantic narrowing can lead to a negative connotation, a process called pejoration. If I said the word vulgar, you’d immediately think I was referring to someone (or something, as in a painting, photo, song, or language) who acted in an inappropriate manner. But vulgar stems from the Latin word vulgaris or vulgas, meaning “common people” or “ordinary.”

Over to you, my beloveds. Write a sentence that includes two or more of these words with their original definitions. Bonus points if you include more than five! 

 

 

9+

19 thoughts on “Word Porn

  1. Interesting post on a day when I’m editing a manuscript that includes indigenous people. When I interviewed one such person for viewpoint, she readily identified herself as indigenous and told me what words I could and could not use to describe her culture. Now, as I review editor notes, my editor is questioning my usage. At the end of the day, different people will see the words differently, which requires me to write a foreward to explain my position on word choice.

    2+
    • Tough spot to be in, Karla. Ignoring an editor’s advice is risky, but it sounds like the indigenous community plays a major role in your novel, so you need to respect their culture. Sounds like a foreward might be the perfect solution. Best of luck to you!

      Jim Porter, can you weigh in please?

      1+
  2. I’ll give it a go:
    My egregious grandmother kissed my cheek then cleared her throat, silencing the room (even the poodle hound stopped its frolicking and sat), and announced, “A dessert of sugared meats and tea will be served in the parlor.”

    Haha, that barely makes sense!

    2+
  3. My son is a naughty girl but works hard to improve his lot. My wife, a good man, is an awful cook.
    .
    Perhaps an interesting side note… I spend a lot of time with Japanese people. The Japanese have incorporated thousands of English words and expressions into their own language since the end of WWII. The meaning of many of these seem to have evolved or changed over time. “Smart”, for example, has always included ‘physically trim’ as one definition, but this is the only way the word is used in Japanese. Japanese coworkers would talk about another person as being “so smart” – Until I understood their meaning, I expected to meet a person with a good head on his/her shoulders. This was not always the case.
    .
    “High-tension” is another and has nothing to do with being stressed out. Rather, to the Japanese, this means ‘very alert’ and is used in a positive way to compliment folks.

    4+
  4. “Sir Henry, an egregious gentleman of a certain age and florid pallor, ordered his woman-a truly naughty wifman-to prepare the mete, consisting of a goodly portion of deer, for the vulgar crowd outside the gate; the result was an awful cheer arising from the vulgar masses, which warmed Sir Henry’s usually frigid heart.”

    Edit that! I dare you… 🙂

    2+
  5. I can’t think of any good sentences off the top of my furry little brow (I need a haircut). But I’ll bring up another point that goes to yours: words that used to mean something and now, usually incorrectly, have come to mean the opposite. Or they’ve evolved into meaning either, which makes them useless.

    Hellacious: Used to mean just bad or really arduous. (First known usage was 1929). But now it can mean just the opposite — Wow, that was a hellacious party, dude! (meaning really cool…or, dare I say, a phat phete). So now, because it can mean either, it has no value. It has lost its currency.

    Fulsome: Politicians like this word a lot, cuz it sounds so five-dollar. In its original form, it was always negative, meaning morally offensive or over-done to the point of bad taste. (“The the fulsome chromium glitter of the escalators dominating the central hall” — Lewis Mumford.) But now it is commonly used as praise, meaning abundant. (“He received a fulsome welcome as he took the stage.”) I guess it got twisted because the “ful” implies “full.”

    Anywho, that’s my tuppence for the day! Keep calm and carry on…

    4+
  6. I do not have a sentence, but a bit of advice I learned from my dear friend the Juvenile Officer. Get word definitions, especially for slang. Dear Friend discovered that Narc, a narcotics detective or police officer was not what their young charge was talking about. In his part of St. Louis County a Narc was a drug USER. Changes the sentence right up.

    4+
  7. Here’s my entry:
    “I was thrilled when the editor returned my manuscript, calling me an egregious writer using truly awful words. Can’t wait to see what the agent says!”

    I loved this post, Sue. I have another example: some Russian friends of ours claim the French word “bistro” was derived from the Russian “bwees-tra”, meaning “quickly.” When Russians occupied Paris after the defeat of Napolean, they would order their food and demand it “bweestra” in the cafes. Maybe these were the first fast-food restaurants?

    3+
    • Hahahahaha. Dare you to post your entry on social media with no explanation, Kay. 😉 Well done!

      Fascinating about the Russian bwees-tra verse the French bistro. Huh. Maybe they were the first fast-food restaurants.

      2+
  8. A “narc” is also a narcissist. I listen to Reddit stories, most by the young, and I spend a surprising amount of time at various slang dictionary sites. Other personal new word favorites are “yeet” which means to throw away from in violent or emotional manner, and what is yeeted is often another human. (The football player yeeted the bully away from his cowering nerd friend.) And “nope” as a verb for leaving because of a bad feeling. (The moment I sensed the ghost, I noped right out of there.)

    One depressing bit of linguistic history is that most words for a female servant end up meaning “slut” or “prostitute” because people always label the innocent they r*pe to make it their fault.

    Also, look up Grimm’s Law. The Brothers Grimm were linguists as well as collectors of folk tales. They showed that words change over time because humans are lazy in speech, and there is a pattern to that laziness. My personal favorite is “mushrump” which became “mushroom.” I vote we bring back “mushrump” which is an awesome (filled with awe) word.

    3+
    • Wow. Those are new ones for me, Marilynn. ‘Course, I don’t know what the youth are saying half the time. 😉

      The Brothers Grimm are right. Often times, words change due to the laziness of the speaker. One look at the Victorian Era proves that. Society was much more polite and well-spoken.

      I second your vote to bring back “mushrump”!

      2+
  9. Pingback: Top Picks Thursday! For Writers & Readers 04-23-2020 | The Author Chronicles

Comments are closed.