A wry view of life for the world-weary

All Change – Part Five


Continuing our series on words that have changed meaning or usage over the centuries. Hopefully, you will find it of interest.

The modern usage of hopefully, rather like that of literally, is something which is designed to make the blood of the pedantic grammarian boil. For four hundred years since it first cropped up in the English language it was a perfectly innocent adverb used to convey the meaning that something was done in a hopeful manner, as in “we worked hopefully and energetically”. In the 1930s, however, its usage changed to become shorthand for it is hoped as in, “hopefully, you will find it of interest”.

Of course is, of course, another expression commonly deployed without much thought suggesting that what the writer or speaker is about to convey is manifestly self-evident. However, when it first appeared in English in the 16th century it was used adjectivally to suggest it was a matter belonging to the ordinary procedure or customary or natural as in this quote from 1578, “the friendshippe betweene man and man as it is common so it is of course”. The course element of the phrase owed its origin to the French participle meaning running. Of course, the transition from natural to obvious is easy to see but it doesn’t seem to have happened until the 18th century – “he thought it was a matter of course” (1739) – with the first example of the phrase we use so liberally today not appearing in print until 1823, “she made some very particular enquiries about my people which, of course, I was unable to answer”.

Naturally is another one of those irksome and almost redundant adverbs that pepper our written page and spoken language. Its origin is pretty straightforward, from the Latin noun natura or nature, and was used from the 13th century as a noun meaning pretty much all that we now envisage when the concept of nature is conjured up. But its use as an adverb doesn’t quite fit this meaning. Indeed, when we use it is pretty much a synonym for of course, indicating something which is obvious or a logic consequence of something. This change of meaning of nature in its adverbial sense dates back to at least the 15th century as this quote shows, “naturelly, no man schal desire of his enemye the helthe nor welfare” (1425).

An interesting example of the journey that words go on over time is snack. It started out life in the 14th century as a verb meaning to bite at or snap and came into our language from Middle Dutch. Within a century, though, it was being used as a noun, as in “…the bitch overtook the hare and gave a snack at its hind quarters”. By the early 19th century it snack, as a noun, was used to convey something more substantial than a bite, although perhaps its usage in this sense was not quite so common or else why would Keats feel the need to qualify its meaning as he did in 1817, “having taken a snack or luncheon of literary scraps”?. Today it is used as a noun to convey the sense of a light repast but has also fallen foul of the reprehensible modern trend of turning nouns into verbs and so we hear of people snacking. The word has returned to being a verb, albeit with a different meaning.

After all that, I fancy something to drink in a glass. Glass is a very old word, its usage attested as far back as 888CE, denoting the hard, brittle substance that is made by fusing sand with soda and lime. Over time, however, it was used to denote a drinking container or similar which was made out of glass. Today, we use the word so haphazardly that it can mean any drinking container, whether made of glass or not.

More anon.


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