The world is full of symbols, even if we don’t consciously consider them such. A symbol is something that represents something else through common agreement rather than anything inherent in its nature. In America, a red octagon is strongly associated with “Stop,” as is a red light. In other contexts, red means other things, like love. No one thinks a red light means love, however.
Written language as also symbolic. Each squiggle only means something because we all agree it means something. There’s nothing in the letter B that inherently means it makes the sound we all associate with B. And why does dog mean a four-legged creature that barks and is easily domesticated? Because English speakers agree it does. Spanish speakers, however, call that same creature pero. Same creature, different words, and those words only have meaning among people who agree that’s what they mean.
Modern, Middle, Old English
But that agreement changes over time, just as our interpretation of law, styles of fashion, and codes of morality change. Eventually, it can change so much as to be unrecognizable. Middle English, for example, can be uncomfortably stumbled through by modern speakers. An example from Chaucer, 14th century:
Whan that Aprill, with his shoures soote
The droghte of March hath perced to the roote
And bathed every veyne in swich licour,
Of which vertu engendred is the flour.
Old English, on the other hand, doesn’t resemble English at all, which is why many refer to it as Anglo Saxon, the language of English people 1000 years ago. If you want to read it, you’d have to study it like you’d study German in order to read it. An example from Beowulf from before the 10th century:
Hwæt! wē Gār-Dena in ġeār-dagum,
þēod-cyninga, þrym ġefrūnon,
hū ðā æþelingas ellen fremedon.
But change also can be seen in much more recent works. Even writing from 100 years ago sounds different than what we read and write now. They used words differently than we do, and if we don’t recognize that, understanding is lost.
Consider the word gay. Originally, it meant happy and carefree. But when we read about someone being gay, we all come to the same conclusion: he’s a homosexual. No one uses it to mean happy anymore.
As an Aside: The word lesbian is only about 100 years old, and has no previous meaning. While history is full of opinion on male homosexuality, female homosexuality is largely missing from the historical record, neither accepted nor condemned. Only when it became a topic of discussion did it need a term by which it could be discussed.
The Guy You’ve Never Heard Of
Until the 19th century, Guy was simply a first name, one that has now gone out of fashion. In Britain, a historical figure by the name of Guy Fawkes had been burned in effigy for two centuries on Nov. 5, Bonfire Night. That effigy became known as a guy, and eventually the term came to be used for men in general.
As an Aside: Many Americans know of Guy Fawkes through V for Vendetta, in which the main character wears a Guy Fawkes mask, commonly worn by the Bonfire Night effigy. The poem beginning “Remember, remember, the 5th of November,” is historically a pro-government piece, not an anti-government one, celebrating how Fawkes failed to blow up Parliament.
Language isn’t the only symbol to evolve. V for Vendetta has co-opted the Guy Fawkes mask and the Bonfire Night poem to represent resistance against government oppression.
The development of literal sets grammarians’ teeth on edge. For something to literally happen means it happens exactly as stated, without exaggeration. Losing my mother was literally the worst thing that ever happened to me. However, it was not literally hell on earth. If it was, there’d be fire and demons and probably Barney the Dinosaur.
But people have been using literally wrong for so many years that dictionaries are starting to reflect the new usage, making it synonymous with figuratively…which traditionally is the opposite of literally.
Lewd is one of my favorite words to have shifted meaning. Originally, it just meant a lay person: someone not a priest, monk or nun. There was a time when non-lay people were the only educated people, and lewd came to refer to the uneducated. As more people because educated, lewd became associated with the lower class, the people who were the last to be educated. As even the lower class because educated, lewd started to refer to people with very coarse behavior, and from there, it came to focus on a particular type of behavior: that which is indecent and obscene.
Awesome and Terrible Things
Once, to be awesome was to fill people will awe. (Incidentally, awful essentially meant the same thing.) Thus, you might come across references to the appearance of angels being awesome or awful.
Or terrible. While we consider terrible to mean extremely bad, it originally meant something that inspired terror. I don’t care how terrible the coffee is; it doesn’t inspire terror in me.
Once, to be egrarious was to be distinguished and excellent. Then, about 500 years ago, people started using it ironically, and today it means the exact opposite: outstandingly bad.
Literally confusing, yes?
Manufacturing a Definition
Manufacture literally means to make something by hand. Originally, this would have in comparison to something that naturally occurs. However, today we use it for things that have been mass produced, often involving little or no handmade work.
As a medievalist, I often come across villain, often spelled villein. It’s a particular type of peasant. It’s transitioned over the years from someone of low, rustic birth to someone who is more actively contemptible.
Medical Terminology Turned Insult
Making fun of the disabled is nothing new. Thus, a wide variety of words that once described medical conditions have transitioned into insults. This includes
- Dumb, which used to mean deaf
- Spastic, meaning to suffer from epilepsy
- Comical, meaning the same, I suppose because some people find such afflictions darkly funny
- Lunatic can also refer to an epileptic, but it also has the longstanding meaning of its current meaning of insane
- Retarded, meaning mentally disabled, and varying degrees of retardation: idiot, imbecile and moron.
In Russian, “lunatik” is the word for “sleepwalker.”