Friday, November 6, 2015

Words in flux

Why do we call unfamiliar people strangers even though they may not be at all strange? Because they once were. The word strange once meant "foreign." Today it means "odd" or "unusual." When Shakespeare wrote about "one of the strange Queen's Lords," he was referring to one of the foreign queen's lords, not one of the odd queen's lords or one of the queen's odd lords.

Reading Shakespeare, Milton, the King James Bible or any works from centuries past can be tricky because the meanings of words are always changing, and sometimes those changes are radical. Meat once meant food in general, not just the food from animal flesh as it does today. In King Lear, Shakespeare referred to "mice, and rats, and such small deer," suggesting that any animal, or at least any wild animal, was a deer. Similarly, birds of any kind were once called fowl. Today that word is more specialized, referring more to farm birds or game birds.

Today the word naughty means "mischievous," such as a naughty child. At one time the word meant "wicked." The word complexion once referred to temperament, not to skin.

The word disease once meant, as the word suggests, "a lack of ease" or "anxiety." Today it refers to illness. A gale once meant "a gentle breeze." To be cunning was once considered to be a good thing, while pretty was once considered a bad thing, referring more to craftiness than to good looks.

It doesn't take centuries for meanings of words to change. It can happen in one lifetime, as many of us have noticed. Political correctness has made some words, like crippled or Oriental, unacceptable, even though they were in wide use just a few years ago. Words like gay and mouse have so far retained their old meanings, yet their newer meanings have become the first ones many of us think of when we encounter them.

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