Evolution of words

Our word “blue” comes from an old “Common Romance” word blavus. So? Blavus seems to come from the Latin flavus, which means yellow. Over the years, neither the spelling, nor the pronunciation, nor the meaning of words stays put.

Well, stranger things have happened to words!

Well, stranger things have happened to words!

“Baroque” comes from a word that refers to a misshaped pearl. Music and art critics of the early and middle 18th century used it to refer to the style of earlier generations that they considered unnatural, overly ornate.

In other words, these critics intended “baroque” as a derogatory term. It referred to music, architecture, paintings, etc. that violated “modern” notions of reason and good proportion.

So what do we mean by “baroque” now? It’s simply a designation for the various arts of the seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries. We like it just fine, even if we don’t necessarily agree about what it means, what it includes, and what it excludes.

Changing parts of speech

Red sunset off the California coast. Ominous?

Red sunset off the California coast. Ominous?

Sometimes words change meaning, or at least emphasis when they change form.

That is, a noun might have maintained a particular meaning over centuries, but becomes something a little different as an adjective.

Take “omen,” for example. In the dictionary, for example that word means a phenomenon that foretells something good or evil. Take the old sailor’s rhyme

Red sky at night, sailor’s delight
Red sky at morning, sailor take warning

A red sunset is an omen that the next day will have good weather for clear sailing. A red sunrise is an omen that a storm is coming and it will be rough sailing.

If an omen can be good or bad, then why is “ominous” only something bad? We might say a red sunrise is ominous. We often use that word for an accumulation of black clouds and strong wind. A bad storm’s coming.

If a red sunset or bright blue skies with puffy cumulous clouds and a gentle breeze foretell a glorious day, why don’t we call them ominous? They’re omens, too.

The “e” in the noun becomes “i” in the adjective. But then the same thing has happened to the related pair “portent” and “portentous.” A portent can foretell something good, but something that’s portentous never does.

Terror and horror are both intense forms of fear. Terrible and horrible have both become merely ways of calling something bad.

I went to a restaurant one time and vowed never to go back. I thought the food was terrible. It didn’t stay in business long. The other people who tried it out must have thought the same.

You know very well when I said the food was terrible that I wasn’t frightened by it. Would it have been any different if I had said the food was horrible?

You have probably used or heard others use both words to warn someone against a bad restaurant or something. But not to make anyone afraid.

Enormity of change?

Here’s a word that seems to be changing meaning in our own lifetime: enormity. It means, or at least meant, a monstrous evil, a violation of decency, an outrage.

In other words, we can properly speak of the enormity of the holocaust, the enormity of slavery, even the enormity of the gulf oil spill. Enormity entails a moral value judgment.

More and more, people are using it as a mere description of size.  If the enormity of the oil spill is a value judgment, the enormity of cleaning it up is not.

Would we lose a good and useful distinction if enormity becomes just another way of saying enormousness? I think so.

Is it worth fighting to preserve that distinction? Lots others must think so. Just google “enormity misuse” to see how many!

Can we do anything about it if that misuse becomes commonplace usage? No, unfortunately.

The pig manure is noisome. The tractor scooping it is  noisy.

The pig manure is noisome. The tractor scooping it is noisy.

But here’s another example of a word that doesn’t mean at all what it looks like: noisome.

It doesn’t have anything to do with noisy. It comes from “annoy” and has always referred to a stench, a foul odor. A manure lagoon is noisome. A loud welcome home to the Super Bowl winner is not.

So do we find as much outrage over “noisome misuse”? No. Hardly anyone uses the word at all any more.

If an author uses it properly, it probably doesn’t communicate much to the average reader.  If an author uses it improperly, the average reader probably, and quite properly, sees it only as an odd affectation for “noisy.”

If “noisome” hasn’t completely gone the way of “yclept,” it probably will soon enough.

Photo sources:
Evolution satire. Some rights reserved by tedmurphy.
Sunset. Public domain, from Wikimedia Commons.
Pig farmer scooping manure. Some rights reserved by Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources.


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