A wry view of life for the world-weary

All Change – Part One


My logophilia knows no bounds. One of the delights of the English language is that it is dynamic, words coming in and out of fashion and some changing their meaning over time and some even changing to mean almost their polar opposite. This occasional series will focus our attention on some of the myriad examples of the ever-changing English language.

Where better to start then than myriad. This word is used to denote a large but unspecified number. The grammar police debate endlessly and ad nauseam as to whether it should be used as a noun as in “a myriad of” or as an adjective as in “myriad examples” or whether both are acceptable. Whilst I have been known to lapse into using it as a noun the correct usage these days is as an adjective. To the Ancient Greeks there were no such parsing concerns as myriad was a number with a very specific value, ten thousand. The largest number that they could conceive of, or at least express with their somewhat clunky numbering system, was a myriad myriad which, if I am not mistaken, is 100 million.

The absence of a slick and flexible numbering system can be a handicap or something which is a hindrance or an impediment. However, this meaning only came to the fore in the late 19th century. Handicap originated from the world of bartering which to be successful required each party to offer the other goods or services of equivalent value. Often in a bartered trade there was a third person involved whose job it was to determine the relative values of what each side was offering. After the barter had been completed, the adjudicator would put his hat down and if the parties were happy with him they would drop some coins into the titfer and if they weren’t he would go without.

It is from this that the concept of handicapping in racing developed in the early 19th century, adding weights to certain horses to ensure that the weight they were carrying was roughly equivalent to that of its rivals. From there it has acquired its modern meanings including its use, although in less enlightened circles, to describe people with disabilities.

The politically incorrect might be called naughty which these days is more often applied to children with the suggestion that they are mischievous or disobedient or badly behaved. But in the 14th century the word had a very different meaning, drawing more squarely on its derivation from the word naught. Someone who was naughty then was someone who was a pauper, someone who had naught. Within a century, though, its meaning had shifted to poverty of the soul, reflecting someone who was morally bad or wicked. In the 17th century it could be used with its old meaning or its more modern sense, the listener or reader having to determine which by the context in which it was used. Ultimately, the more gentle meaning won out.

Its antonym nice has become a rather vacuous word with a certain undertone. Today when we describe something as nice we often mean that it wasn’t very pleasant but we don’t want to give offence. But the root of the word comes from the Latin nescius meaning ignorant and when nice was first used in English in the 14th century it meant that someone was silly or foolish or ignorant. By the 16th century it had acquired an additional meaning, meticulous, attentive sharp and it was not until the 18th century that it acquired the rather innocuous meaning that it has today.

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