A wry view of life for the world-weary

All Change – Part Three


One of the more regrettable imports from our cousins across the Atlantic is awesome. Its usage is almost ubiquitous amongst those who have forgotten that there are perfectly acceptable alternatives to describe one’s delight and amazement at something. Indeed its growth in popularity strikes many people as awful which nowadays acts as its antonym.

But if you stop and think about it the root of both words is the same, awe, which in Old English meant fear, terror or dread. However, by the 18th century there had been a distinctive shift in the meaning of awe and its compounds. Its usage conveyed the sense of solemn and reverential wonder and awful was often used as an adjective to describe God or elemental forces of nature such as the sea or thunder. They were astonishing and wonderful but also something to respect and even fear. Herman Melville uses the adjective in this way in Moby Dick, “There is, one knows not what sweet mystery about this seas, whose gently awful stirrings seems to speak of some hidden soul below”.

It was only in the 19th century that an alternative meaning to awful developed, one where the connotation is of something frightful or bad, as in that meal was awful. The earliest citation for the current usage of awesome is as late as 1980. Perhaps we should campaign for the reinstatement of the original meaning of awful – it could cause some confusion until it caught on!

Today we are inundated with jargon, words or terms which require a certain level of knowledge to understand or othereise they leave us scratching our heads wondering what is being said. In the Middle Ages jargon was a term used to describe the chattering of birds – the Old French jargon meant exactly that – and Chaucer uses it in this context in the Merchant’s Tale, “and ful of jargon as a flekked pye”. Of course, birdsong is incomprehensible to us and you can see why over time it took on a more pejorative meaning to describe what in Hobbe’s Leviathan of 1651 is “any mode of speech abounding in unfamiliar terms”.

The change in the meaning of the word jargon is perhaps rivalled by that of rival. Its root comes from the Latin noun rivus, river, and the adjective rivalis. When rival first appeared in the English language around the early 15th century it was a synonym for riparian and was used to indicate an association with a river bank or shoreline and more pertinently the opposite side from where you were. However, over time its meaning changed to that of its modern incarnation, a competitor or someone attempting to equal or outdo another. And I suppose you can see how it developed as in a sporting sense your rival or opponent will often be standing opposite you.

The word livid is nowadays associated with high emotion, particularly anger, but this connotation only dates from 1912. In the early 15th century its meaning bore a closer relationship to its Latin root, lividus, and its French derivative, livide, which meant being of a bluish colour and used figuratively to denote envy or malice.

And, finally, defecate. The original meaning of this verb is close to its Latin origin, to cleanse or to clear of dregs. You might defecate a glass to enable someone to drink from it, a usage today which would have your guest making a very hasty retreat. Today the verb has a very specific meaning but again one associated with cleansing and clearing out, only this time it is the bowels.

The wonders of our language!

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