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.

Classical music for children at the library

classical music for children at the library
classical music for children at the library

EMF Encircling the City, Greensboro Public Library, Benjamin Branch

For the past three years, the Greensboro (North Carolina) Public Library, in partnership with the Eastern Music Festival, have presented a series of concerts called “EMF Encircling the City.” It is a special outreach to introduce children to classical music. Children dearly love any music they hear.

This series exemplifies fairly standard library programming. Surely all public libraries in this country provide rich and varied experiences for children, including live music.

Most of them present live music to youth and adult audiences. too. Many even have dedicated concert halls so they don’t have to try to fit performances into multi-purpose rooms.

“EMF Encircling the City” is a three-year-old partnership that began as part of the Eastern Music Festival’s 50th-anniversary celebrations. Diane Phoenix-Neal, a Greensboro violist and EMF faculty member initiated the series. (For whatever it’s worth, she’s black and first participated in EMF as a young student.) Continue reading

A tour of the library blogosphere

writing at computer -- varying sentence structure

writing at computerTo the best of my knowledge, Reading, Writing, Research is the only blog written by a librarian intended to be read by the general public.

All the others are written either to other librarians or to patrons at whatever library the author works for.

That is not to say that other library blogs have nothing of interest to the general public. Today’s post links to posts on other blogs that you might enjoy. If you like this one, it will become the first of an occasional series. Continue reading

WorldCat’s mapFAST mobile service

OCLC mapFAST mobile

OCLC mapFAST mobileLibrarians know about a company called OCLC because most libraries of any size are members. You may not know much about OCLC, but I hope you know about its major service for the general public, WorldCat. If you don’t, you can look at my post about WorldCat from a couple of years ago.

Search engines depend on keywords. Sometimes it’s necessary to try a number of keywords before the search engines will return anything like what you’re looking for.

Library catalogs offer more sophisticated search options based on controlled vocabulary.

Geographic place names can offer special difficulties in searching. A system Faceted Application of Subject Terminology (FAST) takes Library of Congress Subject Headings and presents them in a more machine-friendly way to search for them. A mashup of FAST with Google Maps makes mapFAST

OCLC has just announced mapFAST mobile, which works on Android phones. Continue reading

The American public and its libraries

Sterling Public Library, Colorado
Sterling Public Library, Colorado

Sterling Public Library, Colorado

The most recent Pew Research Center poll of library usage includes a fascinating statistic: 91% of respondents consider public libraries either very important or somewhat important to their community.  But only 76% consider it very important or somewhat important to themselves or their families!

One non-library user expressed support for the services they provide to people less well off. That person had enough money to choose various alternatives. I doubt if that sentiment represents the entire 15% of Americans who consider libraries important for the community but not themselves.

Who are library users?


Bookmobile. Monterey (California) Public Library

The poll only tracks people who are at least 16; 84% of respondents report having visited a library or bookmobile in person at least once in their lives.

My own memory of elementary school is hazy. If I had been to a library then, but not since, I would have had to count myself among the 16% of people who responded that they had not visited a library in person.

The poll breaks all the answers down demographically, but a clear majority of all age, race, income, and other groups recall personally visiting a library or bookmobile.

That percentage drops to 53% when people were asked if they had visited a library in person in the past year. Nowadays, people can use library resources through their computers or cell phones. The question specifically excludes electronic visits, so it does not reflect actual library usage.

Here the demographic breakdowns show some real differences:

  • Hispanics visit the library less than non-Hispanic whites or blacks.
  • Parents of minor children visit the library more than non-parents .
  • The majority of respondents with at least some college visited the library in the past year; the majority with no college did not.
  • 62% of high-school aged respondents visited the library in the past year. Decreasing majorities in older age groups did until age 65. Only 40% of respondents 65 or older used a public library in person.
  • Middle income people visited the library more than either those at the top or bottom of the income scale.
  • Living in an urban, suburban, or rural area made no significant difference in library usage.

No more than 11% of respondents in any demographic visited the library at least once a week. Three groups reported that percentage: non-Hispanic blacks, people with annual household income of less than $30,000, and suburbanites.

Those least likely to visit the library every week are those with annual  household income of $75,000 or more (5%), men (6%), and high-school graduates (6%), who used the library weekly less than both more educated and less educated people.

A quarter of the population visited the library at least monthly, a fifth of the population less than monthly within the past year, and 47%  not at all within the past year.

Who grew up in a family of public library users?

Library services for children and families

Special children’s program, Asheboro (North Carolina) Public Library

In the report, the first question concerned whether respondents remembered other family members besides themselves using the library. I’m considering this question last in order to compare it with the more personal questions.

A fifth of respondents say that no one in the household used the library when they were growing up, while 77% recalled that other family members did.

Only 53% of high school dropouts and 58% of Hispanics recalled anyone else using the library. Only two other groups (those 65 or older and those making less than $30,000 a year) gave less than 70% yes answers.

That 77% is close to the 76% who consider the library important personally, although I haven’t dug into the raw data to see if those responses came from the same people.

Since 91% consider libraries Important for the community as a whole, it appears that most of the 23% who either said that no one in their family used the library or apparently said they didn’t remember still consider libraries important for the community as a whole.

Libraries enjoy a great deal of good will from people who don’t use them, and even from people who don’t recall seeing anyone else use them when they were growing up.

The library is much more than a mere warehouse for the collection. Most of the population seems to understand.

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Photo credits:
Sterling Public Library. Some rights reserved by Jeffrey Beall
Bookmobile. Some rights reserved by Monterey Public Library.
Children’s program. Some rights reserved by Asheboro Public Library