A few posts ago, I was talking about the sentential-modifier meaning of hopefully, or in non-linguist speak, hopefully in the sentence:

(1) Hopefully I’ll be able to escape from the dungeon this afternoon.

This is not the original meaning of hopefully, which originally meant “in a hopeful manner”. Although it seems that the original meaning has lost prominence in recent years (and has almost completely fallen out of at least my lexicon), it’s still in use:

(2) “‘A whip isn’t a weapon,’ he replied hopefully.”

But as soon as you have the perception that a new meaning is edging the old one out, prescriptivists see it as a battleground for the language, and lift their skinny fists like antennas to heaven, crying out for someone to aid them in their quest to return the word to its original, unsullied state. And you know what? On its face, that might seem like a reasonable stance; after all, we don’t want to open the floodgates and allow any word to mean anything, right? At that point it seems it’s a slippery slope to the Humpty Dumpty position on language, named for the following exchange in “Through the Looking-Glass”:

`I don’t know what you mean by “glory,”‘ Alice said.
Humpty Dumpty smiled contemptuously. `Of course you don’t — till I tell you. I meant “there’s a nice knock-down argument for you!”‘
`But “glory” doesn’t mean “a nice knock-down argument,”‘ Alice objected.
`When I use a word,’ Humpty Dumpty said in rather a scornful tone, `it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.’

But this slope is not nearly as slippery as prescriptivists would have you believe. There is a world of difference between Humpty’s singular declaration that glory means “a nice knock-down argument” and the acknowledgment that a meaning that has been in common usage for almost 80 years (sentential hopefully) is a proper meaning of the word at this point. Maybe you don’t believe me, or still don’t feel entirely comfortable with new meanings. I wouldn’t blame you; this is a commonly-held belief known as the etymological fallacy.

So let’s look at some examples of words whose common and well-accepted meanings were really quite different from their original meanings. None of these, as far as I’m aware, are controversial meanings. They all represent substantial changes from their original meanings. And the English language has not fallen into whateverism as a result. Keep these in mind the next time you’re about to object to a newer usage just because it’s new, whether it be hopefully, anxious, nauseous, or something else entirely. All the definitions are based on the Oxford English Dictionary, 2nd edition, online version (http://www.oed.com). And many thanks to the commenters on the earlier post, who offered suggestions for some of the best words below.

of course – you know this phrase as a sentential adverbial phrase that means, more or less, “obviously”. It’s been used as such since at least 1823: “She made some very particular inquiries about my people, which, of course, I was unable to answer.” This usage comes from and adverbial and adjectival usage meaning “belonging to the ordinary procedure”, which dates back to the 1500s. (That usage is partially preserved in the idiom a matter of course.) But course itself came into English from the French some time in the High-to-Late Middle Ages, from a participle meaning running.

snack – started out as a verb in the 1300s, possibly from Middle Dutch. As a verb, it meant “to bite or snap at (but not necessarily eating)”. Within a century, it was being used as a noun as well, as in this briefly obscene sentence from the OED: “The bitch overtook the hare and gave a snack at its hinder parts.” From this meaning we get to snack as “a mere bite or morsel of food”, which is sufficiently common by 1817 that Keats felt safe using it figuratively: “Having taken a snack or luncheon of literary scraps.” The word even spread back from a noun to a verb, creating the verb to snack. So our common modern usage of to snack is a verb that came from a noun that came from a different noun, which came from a verb that is almost completely out of the English language. The cycle is complete!

glass – an Old English word that started life referring to the substance (attested since at least 888AD). Its meaning later spread to include a noun denoting a container or other object made of glass, and still later it started to refer to a specific type of glass vessel, the modern day drinking glass — which, by the way, need not be made of glass. “A glass of water in a plastic cup” has 8 hits on Google, for instance. I can’t imagine any grammarian objects to this, although maybe they’ll start to soon.

naturally – a doubly affixed form of nature. Nature, a Latinate word, appeared after the Norman Invasion and is attested by the 1200s in English as well as Spanish, Italian, and Portuguese. From the start, it had a wide range of meanings, covering human vitality, mental and physical impulses, innate character, and the world; more or less the range of meanings it has to this day. Naturally, as an adverb corresponding to nature might thus mean “in a manner that accords with natural laws and tendencies”. And that’s sort-of-but-not-quite what naturally means in the dialogue in (3):

(3) ‘If I ask you questions I shall expect answers.’ / ‘Naturally.’

No, naturally here means something along the lines of of course. And we see the shift over to this meaning taking place for a while; check out this sentence from around 1425: “Naturelly no man schal desyre Of his enmye the helthe nor welfare.”

enthusiasm – [thanks masseylinguists] a borrowing into English from Greek, it is first attested in 1603 with the meaning “possession by a god, supernatural inspiration”. This inspirational meaning lost prominence when gods stopped possessing people quite so often, and after a dalliance as “misdirected religious emotion”, enthusiasm settled with its current meaning, “passionate eagerness in any pursuit”. The OED marks the original meaning as obsolete, its second meaning as archaic, and the third as the “principal current sense”.

quarantine – [thanks Faldone] the original quarantine was the forty days Jesus spent in the desert after his baptism, and in its usage in post-classical Latin and early usage in English, quarantine refers to this or other 40-day periods. (This meaning still hangs on weakly in the title of Jim Crace’s novel “Quarantine“, about the Temptation of Jesus.) The first attested usage of quarantine in its modern sense, the isolation of a potentially infective person or thing, is in the diary of Samuel Pepys in 1663, where he goes off onto a etmylogical point:

” [...] to perform their Quarantine (for 30 days as Sir Richard Browne expressed it..contrary to the import of the word; though in the general acceptation, it signifies now the thing, not the time spent in doing it).”

How beautiful is that diary entry? Already in 1663 it was being used with a meaning that went directly against its original meaning, suggesting that this new meaning substantially pre-dates Pepys’s usage.

Get the point? Given the amount of change that some of our dearest and commonest words have gone through, there is absolutely no reason to say that a new meaning is wrong simply because it is not the original. And if you do insist on saying that it is, you should know that you are fighting for a lost cause, and a cause that ought to be lost. You are not some stalwart defender of the purity or virtue of the English language, you’re just somebody who refuses to accept that one of the strengths of language is its flexibility.

One last point on the matter. Window comes from an Old Norse word that superseded the far more exciting Old English eyethurl. It still has the same meaning all these years later, a fairly obvious and unambiguous one, right? It means a hole in your wall that you can look through (the literal meaning, in Old English, of eye-thurl is “eye hole”). Of course, that’s probably not quite what you mean if you say:

(4a) I have seven windows open on my computer.
(4b) Fire the rockets! Our launch window is closing!

And yet those new meanings, first attested by the OED in 1966 and 1965, respectively, do not raise the ire of prescriptivists. One is left to wonder why.

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