A wry view of life for the world-weary

All Change – Part Four


In continuing our look at words which have changed their meaning dramatically over the years, it is astonishing how many words which make up even the most basic vocabulary have shifted sense. Take meat for example. It owes its origin to the Old English noun, mete, which referred to food in general rather than liquids or drink and, specifically, for fodder for animals. Even towards the end of the 18th century it had this meaning as this quotation from Samuel Johnson’s A Journey to the Western Islands of Scotland, published in 1775, shows: “our guides told us that the horses could not travel without rest or meat”. Nowadays, of course, when we use it we mean the flesh of a mammal. Still you could make a vegetarian blanche by reverting to its original meaning!

You would think you were on safer ground when considering words which differentiate the sexes. But Chaucer uses girles which is the Old English equivalent of girls in the General Prologue of his Canterbury Tales (line 664) in a general context rather than one in which the sex of the individuals is paramount.

The adjective sly is used rather pejoratively these days. The connotation is that the person so described is sneaky or deceitful. But the word, when it was introduced into English from Old Norse in the 13th century, was a brush you wouldn’t mind being tarred with. It denoted someone who was clever or wise or knowing and was related to sleight, a noun which nowadays also carries with it the whiff of something underhand or at least deceitful, especially when it is used as a synonym for a magician’s presdigitation.

Cheater is another badge you wouldn’t want to wear these days as it denotes someone who is out to pull a fast one. But originally it was a position of some power and influence in mediaeval England. At least as far back as the 12th century, the English king would appoint an escheator and by the 14th century there was one escheator per county. When someone died intestate without heirs, their property passed to the monarch, much as it passes to the Treasury these days. The role of the escheator was to manage the process. But, of course, the role put significant temptations in their way and often they would prey on people’s distress and ignorance of the law to feather their own nests. So endemic were their corrupt practices that their office became a byword for a swindler, a meaning it retains today.

Artificial today has the meaning of something which is ersatz, not the real thing. But its root comes from the Latin artifex which meant someone with skill or a craftsman. So when it was originally introduced into the English language it was complimentary and suggested someone who was full of artistic and technical skill. There is skill, to be sure, in producing something which at first glance could be passed off as the real thing but somehow and sometime over the centuries the adjective attracted a more pejorative meaning.

And to finish off, here is an example of a word that started off with a negative connotation and is now very complimentary, the adjective pretty. In Old English the word meant crafty or cunning, a bit like the meaning we now attribute to sly. A speech might be described as pretty, meaning that it was cleverly or elegantly put but, perhaps, gilding the lily somewhat. By the 15th century the adjective had lost the pejorative aspects to its meaning and had adopted the one with which we are more familiar.

Our wonderful language never fails to fascinate.


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