All Change – Part Six


Continuing our series on words which have changed meaning over the centuries.

I suffer from heartburn, pretty unpleasant it is too and, I’m told, the sharp pain that I experience in the chest area from time to time is the result of acid reflux, probably if truth be told, testimony to my poor lifestyle. Nowadays we pretty much use heartburn to describe this medical condition but the first usage of the word was in the context of feelings and emotions associated with the heart such as jealousy and hatred.

Having broadcast my medical problem to the world at large, let’s look at that word. Today it is almost exclusively associated with communications. We talk about radio and television broadcasts where the word is used as a noun and as a verb it denotes the act of communicating stuff, usually words, images and sounds, to a wide constituency. Inevitably this is a relatively recent usage of the word as TV and radio are creatures of the 20th century. In the 18th century broadcast was used to describe scattering seeds in a wide arc. You can understand how the sense was hi-jacked by the nascent broadcasting world two hundred years later.

The adjective nervous has had an interesting history. If you were called nervous in the 15th century then you would be quite pleased because it meant you were sinewy and vigorous. However, by the early 18th century you would be less pleased because it meant you were suffering some form of disorder to the nervous system and by the end of that century it was a commonly used euphemism for the mentally ill. So widespread was its usage in this context that the medics used the term neurological to describe a form of nervous disorder. When in these more politically correct and sympathetic times we use the adjective we normally use it to indicate that someone is timid or easily agitated.

Similarly, being described as a bully is not normally something you would aspire to. After all, someone so tagged is seen as using their strength, power or influence to harm or intimidate their weaker brethren. But in the 16th century bully was used as a term of endearment for either sex. A hundred years later it was used to describe someone who was a bit of a show-off and it was only in the 18th century that it acquired its more pejorative meaning.

Careful is used to describe someone who is cautious and/or painstaking in what they do. Not always so though. The original meaning of the word was exactly what it said on the tin, someone who was full of cares and woe. Of course, exercising caution is a good way of ensuring that you are not full of woe, another example of a complete transition of original meaning.

Matrix is one of those words which seems to have been given a new lease of life by the cinematographic industry. As a noun it has various connotations but the principal concept is around an environment, whether cultural, social or political, in which something develops. In mathematical usage it describes a rectangular array of quantities of expressions in columns and rows which is treated as a single entity and manipulated according to certain rules. But, as the Latin scholars will know, its root is matrix which means a womb, where human and animal life develops.

If you are presented with something that reads or sounds complete rubbish – be gentle, dear reader! – you might utter the exclamation, balderdash, a term used originally to describe an unusual mix of drinks sich as beer and wine or milk and beer. Only in 1670 did it mean a senseless jumble of words and thence become a portmanteau to describe nonsense.

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