Nothing stays constant, not even words. Their means slips, slides, changes.
In church, children sing, “Our God is an awesome God.” Awesome now means an all-round cool guy, a marvellous person. It used to mean that which inspires awe and reverence.
Our semi-slang term “cool,” a few decades old, borrows meaning from the French sang-froid,, literally cold-blood, or calm and composure.
“Neat” no longer means tidy but cool.
“Nice” is probably the one word which has evolved the most. It meant “foolish, stupid, senseless,” in the late 13 century derived from the Latin nescius “ignorant,” from ne- “not” + stem of scire “to know.” The sense development has been extraordinary, even for an adjective moving from “timid” (pre-1300); to “fussy, fastidious” (late 14c.); to “dainty, delicate” (c.1400); to “precise, careful” (1500s, preserved in such terms as a nice distinction and nice and early) to “agreeable, delightful” (1769); to “kind, thoughtful” (1830). By 1926, it was pronounced by Fowler to be “too great a favourite with the ladies, who have charmed out of it all its individuality and converted it into a mere diffuser of vague and mild agreeableness.”
“I am sure,” cried Catherine, “I did not mean to say anything wrong; but it is a nice book, and why should I not call it so?” “Very true,” said Henry, “and this is a very nice day, and we are taking a very nice walk; and you are two very nice young ladies. Oh! It is a very nice word indeed! It does for everything.” [Jane Austen, “Northanger Abbey”]
Sometimes, the evolution of language makes it hard for us to read a piece as the author intended it. W.B. Yeats in his great poem “Lapis Lazuli” writes
All perform their tragic play,
There struts Hamlet, there is Lear,
That’s Ophelia, that Cordelia;
Yet they, should the last scene be there,
The great stage curtain about to drop,
If worthy their prominent part in the play,
Do not break up their lines to weep.
They know that Hamlet and Lear are gay;
Gaiety transfiguring all that dread.
Yeats meant gallantly and inexorably cheerful when he wrote “gay.” Today, the words would be read in a very different sense.
Nowadays much of the evolution of English is in the direction of the watering down of language. People use the noun “epic” as an adjective–“an epic fail,” and words like immense or massive, when they mean “not too bad.” This is now even apparent in Britain where understatement has traditionally been the norm, and people describe their well-being by the phrase, “not too bad,” whether they have just won the lottery, or lost their wallet.
The exhibition, Evolving English: One Language, Many Voices (www.bl.uk/evolvingenglish) is now on at the British Library but only until April 3, 2011. (Free)
Experience some of it without leaving your computer. Try the Quiz http://www.bl.uk/evolvingenglish/quiz.html, (I got 6/6 on the medium level, and 5/6 on the egghead level.)
Record your voice to add to the collection of English being gathered from across the globe. (http://www.bl.uk/evolvingeenglish/maplisten.html).
Listen to English as it is spoken around the world.
Tweet your comments, or quiz results, using #evolvingenglish (link the #tag to http://bit.ly/dmIoPm)
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