By Debbie Burke
We wordsmiths know that language changes over time. Words often veer far away from their original definition and usage.
Take, for instance, the adjective ANXIOUS. Anxious is an old word, originally coined in about 1548 that (according to Google’s dictionary) means:
1. experiencing worry, unease, or nervousness, typically about an imminent event or something with an uncertain outcome.“she was extremely anxious about her exams”
2. wanting something very much, typically with a feeling of unease.”the company was anxious to avoid any trouble”
However, consider the following examples heard in current everyday speech:
“She’s anxious to reunite with her childhood sweetheart.”
“He’s anxious for his first book to be released.”
“She’s anxious to wear her new jeans.”
The implication is the subjects can’t wait for these occurrences to happen because they are generally considered happy, exciting events.
That made me wonder if EAGER is a more accurate word to describe the above feelings.
So I checked with Merriam-Webster. That source adds a third definition that reflects the increasingly common usage in today’s speech:
- ardently or earnestly wishing.
Merriam-Webster goes into a deeper discussion:
Choose the Right Synonym for anxious
EAGER, AVID, KEEN, ANXIOUS, ATHIRST mean moved by a strong and urgent desire or interest. EAGER implies ardor and enthusiasm and sometimes impatience at delay or restraint. eager to get started AVID adds to EAGER the implication of insatiability or greed. avid for new thrills KEEN suggests intensity of interest and quick responsiveness in action. keen on the latest fashions ANXIOUS emphasizes fear of frustration or failure or disappointment. anxious not to make a social blunder ATHIRST stresses yearning but not necessarily readiness for action. athirst for adventure
Can anxious Be Used as a Synonym for eager?
The fact that individual words can have multiple senses that are closely related in meaning is something which many people find objectionable about the English language. Anxious is an example of such a word, as people will use it to mean “worried,” “eager (but with an undertone of worry),” and simply “eager.”
Here are a few more examples of words whose meaning has changed over time:
AWESOME – originally, it meant inspiring awe. Now the word is overused as a superlative compliment for any and everything great: “That sushi is just awesome, dude.”
Which leads to…
DUDE – Merriam-Webster’s definition:
1 : a man extremely fastidious in dress and manner : dandy. 2 : a city dweller unfamiliar with life on the range (see range entry 1 sense 3b) especially : an Easterner in the West.
Yet in the past several decades, how often have you heard dude used in that context? Probably not too frequently since surfer and “bro” culture co-opted the term. Now it’s mostly a casual greeting: “Whassup, dude?” Or dude is a noun that refers to a guy.
Which leads to…
GUY – This word has an interesting, violent history. Guy originally referred to Guy Fawkes, a British terrorist. In 1605, Guy and several co-conspirators tried to blow up Parliament with gunpowder. He was sentenced to be hanged and drawn and quartered but, on the way to the noose, he either fell or jumped, breaking his neck. November 5 is still celebrated as a holiday with fireworks and bonfires. Guy is an eponym, meaning a word that is believed to be named for a person or event.
Originally it referred to males, e.g. “He’s a nice guy.”
Nowadays, it’s used collectively—“You guys are an awesome audience!”—inclusive of men and women, adults and kids.
Which leads to…
KID – My third-grade teacher Miss Parker didn’t approve when we referred to ourselves as kids. She always corrected us, saying, “A kid is a baby goat.” Ultimately, she lost that battle because Merriam-Webster now lists the first definition as: “a young person, especially a child;” followed by the second definition of “a young goat.”
Which leads to…
OLD GOAT – an insulting way to refer to an old man, goat has evolved into an acronym especially popular in sports: G.O.A.T. = Greatest Of All Time.
TKZ word geeks, let’s open the discussion.
As a writer, do you feel anxious or eager when words evolve and change meaning over time?
Please share examples you’ve noticed lately. Do they annoy you? Or do you appreciate the fresh variation?
When the law prevents justice…When DNA isn’t proof…When a lie is the truth.
Please check out Debbie Burke’s new release, Until Proven Guilty. Available on Kindle, Nook, Apple Books, and online booksellers at this link.