The unusual etymology of five simple words

A recent article by Simon Horobin reveals that, when they first came to be popularly used, each of the five words I’ve chosen meant something very different to what it does today
Now, it’s not surprising to find that words change their meanings over time (Shutterstock)
Now, it’s not surprising to find that words change their meanings over time (Shutterstock)
Updated on Aug 07, 2021 06:16 PM IST
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This Sunday, I want to share my fascination for the English language. I’ve done it before, of course, but when third waves, winged horses, limping economies and less-than-thrilling Olympics are depressing our spirits, this could be the little boost you need. What I intend is not fiercely cerebral or complicatedly grammatical. Nor does it have anything to do with the illogical pronunciation of the language. It’s about five simple words we probably use every single day: Pretty, tall, silly, naughty, and sad. But it is about their etymology.

Now, it’s not surprising to find that words change their meanings over time. For instance, to be gay today is very different to what that adjective meant in the 1920s. Mummy, as a 90-year-old, would often introduce generals with the line, “We first met when he was a gay young man”. For her, gay was always merry and carefree.

A recent article by Simon Horobin, a professor of English at Oxford, reveals that, when they first came to be popularly used, each of the five words I’ve chosen meant something very different to what it does today. It’s a bit like “disinterested”. We use it to mean not interested. Originally, it meant impartial. Or “fulsome”. Historically, it meant insincere. Today, fulsome praise is taken as a compliment.

Now, when “pretty” first entered the dictionary, as a derivative of a word from Old English, it meant cunning. By the 15th century, the word described something cleverly made or artful. Slowly, thereafter, it was used to call someone attractive or good-looking. But you still get hints of its origin when you remember it can be used ironically as in “pretty kettle of fish” and “pretty state of affairs”.

“Tall” in Old English meant swift or active. By the 15th century, it came to mean handsome or elegant. Its usage relating to height began a century later. From there spring its metamorphic extensions to mean large as in “tall order” or exaggerated as in “tall story”.

These changes in meaning may seem surprising but they’re really not. Professor Horobin says, “Several common adjectives that describe physical appearances began life referring to dexterity and pliancy”. “Handsome”, for example, originally meant easy to handle, while “clever” meant dexterous. Believe it or not, “buxom” meant obedient. That’s definitely no longer true!

Let’s now come to “silly”. In Old English, it meant happy or fortunate. In due course, that became “pious” or “holy”. Then, says the professor, “because the innocent are easily taken advantage of it came to signal a person deemed weak or helpless”. Thereafter, it was used to suggest rustic or lacking sophistication. Its modern meaning of “foolish” was, I guess, the inevitable next step. But if you want to call me silly, I hope it’s in the original sense?

In Old English, to be naughty was to be poor, literally to have naught or nothing. Perhaps this is why it was later used to describe someone as immoral and, in a weakened sense of that term, mischievous or disobedient. Today, the adjective is usually reserved for children. But its use to mean “indecent” survives. In the 1980s, Salman Rushdie used the word to coin a rather clever phrase “naughty but nice” to sell cream cakes. Monty Python created the term “naughty bits” to politely refer to genitals.

“Sad” has, perhaps, the most strange etymology of all. In Old English, it meant “full”. These days, it’s been replaced in this sense by “satisfied” or “sated”. But in the 14th century, “sad” came to mean settled, firm or resolute. According to the prescient professor, the modern meaning sorrowful is, perhaps, a throwback to the Old English usage “where the word already carried a sense of being weary or tired of something, reflecting the way that satisfaction quickly shades into ennui”.

Finally, try and make sense of this. I’m using the five words in their Old English sense. He was tall and pretty, I was naughty but silly, and both of us were sad!

Karan Thapar is the author of Devil’s Advocate: The Untold Story

The views expressed are personal

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  • ABOUT THE AUTHOR

    Karan Thapar is a super-looking genius who’s young, friendly, chatty and great fun to be with. He’s also very enjoyable to read.

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Thursday, December 09, 2021