Monthly Archives: February 2023

The Slippery Nature of Language

Language changes. In fact, languages change so much as to become largely unrecognizable over a period of six or seven centuries. Middle English from around 1350 is at best difficult for us; Old English of 1,000 years ago is indecipherable. This process is generally termed semantic drift or semantic progression.

Yet even knowing this, we’re very resistant to any changes we see occuring in our language today. It’s a knee-jerk, almost territorial reaction: we blather about the purity of the English language ignoring the reality that, with its origins in the Germanic tongues and heavy borrowings from Latin, Greek, French, and Dutch, the English language is anything but pure. In the words of James D. Nichol, “The problem with defending the purity of the English language is that English is about as pure as a cribhouse whore. We don’t just borrow words; on occasion, English has pursued other languages down alleyways to beat them unconscious and rifle their pockets for new vocabulary.”

At my last writers’ group meeting meeting, there was some discussion of the word elegant. One writer correctly pointed out that the term had drifted in meaning and was still used in some fields (e.g., science) to indicate simplicity or economy, as in the phrase an elegant solution. This meaning is still inherent in the term, although relegated to a secondary meaning today. My OED defines the word thus:



1. Graceful and stylish

2. Pleasingly ingenious and simple

Today the word is generally understood to mean classy; and if I look up classy, I see that word is defined as an informal adjective meaning “stylish and sophisticated.” Elegant, then has become the formal term for this meaning.

How did we get here? The root of the word elegant comes from two Latin words. The first, eligere, means, “to pick out” or “to choose,” the root which gives us the words, elect, election, etc. The second, elegans, which came to English via Old French, originally suggested taste and discernment—which involves choice. The website sums this up well (note my underlines):

elegant (adj.)
late 15c., “tastefully ornate,” from Old French élégant (15c.) and directly from Latin elegantem (nominative elegans) “choice, fine, tasteful,” collateral form of present participle of eligere “select with care, choose” (see election). Meaning “characterized by refined grace” is from 1520s. Latin elegans originally was a term of reproach, “dainty, fastidious;” the notion of “tastefully refined” emerged in classical Latin. Related: Elegantly.

Elegant implies that anything of an artificial character to which it is applied is the result of training and cultivation through the study of models or ideals of grace; graceful implies less of consciousness, and suggests often a natural gift. A rustic, uneducated girl may be naturally graceful, but not elegant. [Century Dictionary]

Thus, what was once a term of reproach—elegans as “dainty, fastidious”—has now drifted to the extent that what was once a slur has become a compliment.

Elegance, however, got off lightly. Consider the fate of the word gay, which in my childhood was still used to indicate jollity; today, I’d be wary of telling someone they appeared gay. Or decimate (Latin decimatus), a word which is today used to mean near or total destruction. When I hear it used this way—which is all the time—my immediate instinct is to decimate the speaker, since the word actually means the death of one in ten; with its origins in the Roman military practice of punishing a cohort of troops by executing one in ten men, the word’s very root (decem) means ten.

The drift of the word nice is a very interesting case in point. Nice has a variety of meanings, including polite, agreeable, well-bred, virtuous, and even exact. However, nice was not always so: originating from the Latin nescius (“ignorant, not knowing”), the word historically meant foolish, wanton, and dissolute. Many other words in English have done a similar one-eighty, among which silly, which originally meant happy, blissful, lucky or blessed in accordance with its root, the old English word seely.

And on top of this, new words are created and officially added to the dictionary/ies all the time, with many having their origins in the computer fields, as well as social media. In my editing work I frequently correct usages which haven’t yet been offically sanctioned, though I know I’m fighting a rearguard action: the times they are a-changing, and the language with it.

Before I leave the topic, I want to pass on a link which I think many of you will find interesting:  Clicking on this will lead you to Google’s ngram viewer, which allows you to see the frequency of a word’s occurrence over time in tens of millions of scanned texts. Just clear the search field and type in your own word.

Have fun with it. And next time someone tells you something was decimated, please smack them upside the head. They deserve it.

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Filed under Material World, Writing