Five words that don’t mean what you think they do

Benoit Daoust/Shutterstock

Simon Horobin, University of Oxford

Articles of this kind usually assert that a word’s correct meaning lies in its earliest uses, while later developments are corruptions. Disinterested doesn’t mean “not interested” but “impartial” they complain. Decimate must refer to the destruction of precisely one-tenth of something they protest. Fulsome can only mean “insincere” rather than “very full” they cry.

While this may seem logical enough, in some cases it doesn’t quite work. Here we apply the principle of earliest meaning to five common words and we get some rather unexpected results.

1. Pretty

This word is from Old English prættig, “cunning”, from præt “trick” – unrelated to prat “idiot”, which originally referred to the buttocks (hence pratfall: a fall onto the backside).

By the 15th century, pretty described something cleverly made, artful or ingenious. This led to its use to describe someone attractive or good-looking – most commonly a woman or child, although the diarist Samuel Pepys refers to one Dr Clarke as a “very pretty man”.

Ironic uses of pretty to refer to something unpleasant are the origins of phrases like “pretty pass”, “pretty state of affairs” and “pretty kettle of fish”; the latter more often found in the phrase “different kettle of fish”. The kettle here isn’t the kind we use to make tea, but rather a large cooking vessel (from Latin catillus).

2. Tall

Tall is from an Old English word that meant “swift” or “active”. By the 15th century, it had come to mean “handsome” or “elegant”. Its use to mean “skilful” gave rise to the expressions “tall of hand”, meaning “handy” and “tall of tongue”, meaning “good at arguing”.

The 16th century saw the emergence of uses relating to height; subsequent metaphorical extensions include “large”, as in “tall order”, and “exaggerated”, from which the phrase “tall story” emerged. These changes in meaning may seem surprising, but several common adjectives that describe our physical appearances began life referring to dexterity and pliancy. Handsome, as the name suggests, originally meant “easy to handle”, “clever” meant “dexterous”, and “buxom” meant “obedient” (from “bow” meaning “to bend the neck”).

3. Silly

Someone silly in Old English was “happy” or “fortunate”, and later “pious” or “holy”. Because the innocent are easily taken advantage of, it came to signal a person deemed “weak” or “helpless”. Further negative associations are apparent from its use to mean “rustic” or “lacking sophistication”, from which our modern sense of “foolish” emerged.

This process, whereby a compliment becomes a term of abuse, is known to linguists as “pejoration” (from Latin peior “worse”). Its opposite, “amelioration” (from Latin melior “better”), can be seen in the history of “nice”, which originally meant “foolish” (from Latin nescius “ignorant”).

4. Naughty

In Old English, to be naughty was to be poor, literally “to have naught” or “nothing”. It was later used to describe someone immoral and, in a weakened sense, mischievous or disobedient. The particular association with badly behaved children led to the “naughty corner” – a place of isolation to which a child may be sent as a punishment.

Perhaps it was the naughty corner’s Victorian associations that led to the invention of the “naughty step”, a form of discipline advocated by the British reality TV show Supernanny, whose transatlantic success led to its adoption in the US.

Its use to mean “indecent” survives into modern usage in phrases like “naughty but nice”. This phrase was promoted by adverts for cream cakes in the 1980s and was the brainchild of the novelist Salman Rushdie, while he was working as a copywriter. “Naughty bits”, referring to the genitals, was first recorded in a Monty Python sketch in 1970. This euphemism was considered too explicit for American audiences and was bleeped out when the show was broadcast in the US.

5. Sad

This word is from Old English sæd, which meant “full”, as the German satt still does. In English, it has been replaced in this sense by “satisfied” or “sated”, from Latin satis “enough”.

By the 14th century, sad meant “settled”, “firm” or “resolute” and from this the senses “serious” and “grave” developed.

The modern use of sad to mean “sorrowful” can be traced back to Old English, where the word already carried a sense of being weary or tired of something, reflecting the way that satisfaction quickly shades into ennui. Surprisingly, “happy” was brought to us by the Vikings who plundered the north of England and is borrowed from the Old Norse happ, which filled the gap created by the changing use of “silly”. It originally meant “fortunate” – a sense preserved in the phrase “by happy chance”.

To suggest that we are using words incorrectly, therefore, is to ignore the various ways in which meanings of words change over time. In the case of fulsome, “very full” is the earlier of the two senses. Its use to mean “excessive” arose out of “fulsome apologies” that were felt to be insincere – as Priti Patel found to her cost in her resignation letter of 2017.

The looser use of decimate to mean “devastate” is recorded from the 17th century, so can it really be wrong today? And if we did insist on only sanctioning its earliest use – put to death one in every ten of an army of mutinous soldiers – how often would we use it? So feel free to be disinterested in this post, or to lavish it with fulsome praise. Attempting to constrain the uses of words is plain silly – in its modern rather than its medieval meaning.The Conversation

Simon Horobin, Professor of English Language and Literature, University of Oxford

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Virginia Woolf on the magic of going to the cinema

Still from the German silent horror film The Cabinet of Dr Calgari (1920).

Lucy Bolton, Queen Mary University of London

These cinema-starved times have made me pine for the magic of the movies on the big screen. The convenience and comfort of watching DVDs and streamed films at home are, of course, wonderful. Lockdown is inconceivable without them. But the experience of being in the cinema is not possible to replicate from your sofa. The sensory overwhelm and immersion is what makes a trip to the cinema a truly particular experience, and I’ve been contemplating what it is that makes it so special.

The writer Virginia Woolf wondered the same thing after a trip to the cinema in 1926. How might watching a film be so different from reading a novel or attending a concert? For Woolf, the cinema was a new art form, technically advanced but, as yet, not able to show its potential in how it might depict our lives to us.

On the 80th anniversary of her death, her prescient thoughts in the essay, The Cinema, have gained new resonance as we all pine to see film the way it is supposed to be seen, up on the silver screen.

Movie magic

Philosophers who pronounce that we are “at the fag-end of civilisation” and who believe everything has already been said, have, Woolf declares, “presumably forgotten the movies”. By this, she means that film presents, at that time, a brand new way to “see life as it is when we have no part of it” – to watch, in other words, love, hate, fear and anger all play out on the screen in a form that transfixes us through images.

Photograph of Virginia Woolf.
Virginia Woolf.
National Portrait Gallery, London., CC BY-NC

Woolf sees the wonderment on the faces of the moviegoers, that takes people back to their primitive pleasures. The riches on offer in the cinema make it seem as if “we are peering over the edge of a cauldron in which fragments seem to simmer, and now and again some vast form heaves and seems about to haul itself up out of chaos.”

What is so interesting about Woolf’s perceptive assessment of the potential of the cinema is that she sees its possibilities for enlarging and surprising our consciousness and imagination. She is not simply referring to newsreel footage of the King, or the Grand National, although she considers that even with these images our eyes are being tricked into seeing such things as being more real or real with a different reality from that which we perceive in daily life.

Read more:
Virginia Woolf: writing death and illness into the national story of post-first world war Britain

When we are watching these occurrences without actually being there, she observes that:

We have time to open our minds wide to beauty and register on top of it the queer sensation — this beauty will continue, and this beauty will flourish whether we behold it or not.

An art of its own

But what mainly occupies Woolf is how filmmakers are going to make an art of their own. While she recognises that there are novels to be adapted, focusing on Anna Karenina, she is adamant that film can do something very different from just telling a story that has already been told.

She also identities the difficulties film might encounter when creating images of characters of whom who we already have our own mental images from reading. No, she says, it is when we give up trying to match pictures with a book, that we see the possibility for what cinema might create “if left to its own devices”.

Woolf writes about seeing the hugely influential German Expressionist horror The Cabinet of Dr Caligari, and how a shadow shaped like a tadpole appeared quivering in the corner of the screen: “It swelled to an immense size, quivered, bulged, and sank back again into nonentity”.

She describes how this image seemed like something monstrous from within the killer’s brain – but in fact, was a flaw in the film! However, it led Woolf to this fabulous insight: “The monstrous quivering tadpole seemed to be fear itself, and not the statement ‘I am afraid’”.

The realisation that an image on the cinema screen, even just a shadow, at a certain moment, can create an emotion, a mood, and an experience, without words, shows prescient insight into the power of cinema.

She wonders whether there is a secret language, of forms and symbols, that cinema can make visible. A language unlike anything before that can express emotion in hitherto unseen ways. To unlock this, Woolf insists that cinema must find its own images and symbols, and these will be quite unlike the objects in real life: “of such movements and abstractions the films may in time come to be composed”. She sees that film could then present us with clashing emotions – happiness and sadness at once, for instance – that a writer can only toil in vain to convey, more akin to dreams, in colour, sounds and movements.

For Woolf, cinema’s “immense dexterity and enormous technical proficiency” does not quite know what to do with itself yet. And that is its task: to find what it can do specifically more than the novel, the poem, or the piece of music. I find it inspirational and moving to read what Woolf had in mind for the cinema’s future when she wrote this in the mid-1920s. And what she identified – the unique and ineffable power of images on screen – is still what makes me desperate to get back to the cinema as soon as possible.The Conversation

Lucy Bolton, Reader in Film Studies, Queen Mary University of London

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Nawal El Saadawi’s intellectual life reflected eight decades of Arab society and culture

El Saadawi protesting on her 80th birthday.
In Pictures Ltd./Corbis via Getty Images

Amal Amireh, George Mason University

Egypt’s Nawal El Saadawi was the foremost Arab feminist thinker of the past 50 years. Her ideas inspired generations of Arab women, but also provoked controversy and criticism.

She was prolific, publishing over 50 books of fiction and non fiction in Arabic, many translated and receiving global attention.

Focusing on sex, politics, and religion, El Saadawi believed that patriarchy, capitalism and imperialism are intertwined systems that oppress Arab women and prevent them from reaching their full potential.

The trajectory of El Saadawi’s intellectual life follows major developments in Arab society and culture from the 1940s to the present. To understand her contribution, it’s important to see her in the context of the historical moment that made her work possible, necessary and provocative.

Born into change

Born in 1931 in the village of Kafr Tahla near Cairo, into a middle class family, El Saadawi was the second of nine children. She came of age at the cusp of key changes such as the drive for girls’ education pioneered by an earlier generation of activists. She, in fact, attended a school established by Nabawyya Mousa, an activist for women’s education.

Supported by a father who believed in the importance of education for social mobility, El Saadawi attended the British School. Her academic excellence allowed her to evade early marriage and receive a scholarship to study medicine at the University of Cairo. She graduated in 1955 with a specialisation in psychiatry.

Read more:
Nawal El Saadawi: Egypt’s grand novelist, physician and global activist

At university she was exposed to nationalist, anti-colonialist politics. She participated in student demonstrations against the British and married a fellow activist. They had a daughter but divorced. Her second marriage ended in divorce after her husband stipulated she stops writing. Her third marriage, to Sherif Hetata a novelist and former political prisoner, lasted over 40 years but also ended in divorce. They had a son.

After medical school, El Saadawi returned to her village. Working as a countryside physician exposed her to class and gender inequities that further shaped her thinking. She witnessed first hand the harmful consequences of entrenched patriarchal practices such as female genital cutting and defloration inflicted on the bodies of poor village women, detailing some of her experiences in Memoirs of a Woman Doctor (1958).

Travels around the world

In 1963, she was appointed director general for public health education and was able to travel to international forums and conferences. These travels, documented in My Travels Around the World (1991), gave her perspective on the struggles of other women. She always asserted that patriarchy is a universal system of oppression, not only restricted to Arab or Muslim societies.

Thus while she did not hesitate to call female genital cutting “barbaric” she also resisted its sensationalisation in the West as a mark of difference between first world and third world women. She insisted that all women are circumcised if not physically then “psychologically and educationally”. She rejected the idea that western women are needed to help liberate their Arab or African sisters.

But it was the 1967 Six-Day War that pushed El Saadawi to a more radical public position regarding gender. This crushing Arab military defeat by Israel created a crisis for Arab intellectuals generally, compelling them to take a surgical look at their societies.

Feminist manifestos

El Saadawi believed that patriarchy and gender inequalities are root causes for Arab defeatism. She rose to fame in the 1970s with a series of feminist manifestos that put her on the map. Women and Sex (1971) was the first. In it, she condemned the violence committed against women’s bodies including virginity tests, honour killings, wedding night defloration and genital cutting.

A woman looks directly to camera, her white hair done in dramatic fashion, her lips appear to be talking.
El Saadawi in 1986.
Anthony Lewis/Fairfax Media via Getty Images

She exposed her society’s ignorance and double standards regarding women’s bodies and sexuality. Her first chapter, for instance, was focused on the clitoris and its importance for women’s sexual pleasure. She argued that exploitative marriages are no different from prostitution.

Using her medical knowledge, she argued that differences between the sexes are not natural but socially constructed by patriarchal practices – and can therefore be changed through legislation and education. However, she insisted that gender justice will not be possible under a capitalist society. Soon after publication, she lost her job and the magazine she had founded was closed down.

But the positive reception of her work among the public encouraged her to write other polemics including The Female is the Origin (1974), Woman and Psychological Struggle (1976), Man and Sex (1976) and The Hidden Face of Eve (1977). Combining anecdotes of patients, her biography, medical and social research and polemic against gender injustice, she spoke with the authority of a physician, the knowledge of an intellectual and the passion of an injured woman.

The power of fiction

El Saadawi viewed herself first and foremost as a novelist, using fiction to express many of her ideas regarding sex and society. Her first novel to attract attention, for example, was Woman at Point Zero (1983). Her main character, working class Firdaus, experiences sexual exploitation and assault and eventually is executed by the state for killing her pimp.

While she made significant contributions to the Arab feminist novel, El Saadawi’s fiction was received less enthusiastically than her other work, criticised for being repetitive and her female characters dismissed as one-dimensional.

Religious backlash

But the creativity of fiction allowed a space to critique another taboo in Arab society – religion. Her later works were written in response to a religious backlash that had taken over public life in Egypt and beyond.

In The Fall of the Imam (1987), for instance, she condemns the patriarchal regime of President Anwar el-Sadat for using the authority of religion to shore up political legitimacy and marginalise dissidents. The novel was banned by Al Azhar, Egypt’s highest religious authority. In it and God Dies by the Nile (1985), the El Saadawian heroine kills the male authority figures who use religion to oppress them.

In The Innocence of the Devil (1994), El Saadawi goes further: she makes God and the Devil characters in a mental asylum and directly indicts both Islam and Christianity as oppressive of women. Her critique of religion made her an easy target for fundamentalists in Egypt. Her hostility to political Islam was rooted in the personal experience of censorship and death threats.

Her critiques also alienated two other kinds of readers: self-identified Muslims and liberal western academics. As religion was playing a more prominent role in public life in Egypt, many found her views too radical.

For her dissent, she paid a price. In 1981 she was thrown in jail by the Sadat regime along with a thousand other intellectuals. There she wrote Memoirs from the Women’s Prison (1986) using an eye pencil smuggled to her by a sex worker on toilet paper given to her by a murderer.

After her release, she formed The Arab Woman Solidarity Association. It was closed down by Hosni Mubarak’s government in 1991. Unwaivering, she ran against Mubarak in the 2004 presidential elections. During the 2011 uprising that deposed Mubarak, El Saadawi, in her 80s, held seminars in tents in Tahrir Square to radicalise a new generation.

This article is based on Amireh’s chapter in the book Fifty-One Key Feminist Thinkers (Routledge).The Conversation

Amal Amireh, Associate professor, George Mason University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

From erasure to recategorizing: What we should do with Dr. Seuss books

In our current context of rapidly improving technology, archives and museums must constantly make tough decisions about what to keep, what to refuse or even remove.

Monica Eileen Patterson, Carleton University

Was the decision to stop publishing six obscure Dr. Seuss titles containing racist imagery and messaging an erasure of history?

Media coverage of the controversy has presented it as an example of censorship, an attack on free speech and yet another example of cancel culture. These reactions are rooted in both a lack of awareness of the challenges and realities of maintaining collections and a false understanding of history.

Dr. Seuss Enterprises is a children’s entertainment company that functions as both a business and a family estate dedicated to preserving and promoting Theodor Seuss Geisel’s legacy. After consulting with educators and other experts, they decided to halt publication of six books because, in their words, they “portray people in ways that are hurtful and wrong.” An examination of many of the images and text in question confirmed the use of racist tropes in depicting Asian and Black characters.

This decision reflects norms in publishing, archiving and collecting.

Making space for new materials

Publishing companies regularly review their titles and sales to determine and reassess print runs. This is a necessary part of making space for new publications, and maintaining desirable profit margins.

In this context, thinking about museums and archives is helpful.

For cultural institutions tasked with collecting, preserving, ordering and exhibiting, utility is derived from selectivity: not everything can be saved, or it would prove so overwhelming as to render everything inaccessible. That is why galleries, libraries, archives and museums don’t only collect new materials, but also regularly remove them.

The role of curating is key: as both a form of care taking and as a selection process that chooses specific works. Exhibits can serve a variety of roles: they can educate, inspire, call to action, memorialize, entertain. And as new works are being produced at unprecedented rates, space must be made for new material.

A child approaches a Dr. Seuss BookBench sculpture
A child approaches a Dr. Seuss BookBench sculpture in London, U.K.

History is not neutral

Even in our current context of rapidly improving technology, archives and museums must constantly make tough decisions about what to keep, what to refuse or even remove — this often causes controversy.

Whether focused on removing confederate and colonial statues, or retiring a small handful of Dr. Seuss books, these moral panics and culture wars are often rooted in a false premise; that anything from the past comes from a pure and total point of origin, in other words, that representations of confederate soldiers tell a “true,” authentic and complete story that is neutral and objective.

“Don’t erase history!” people often cry, as if history itself wasn’t full of erasures from the beginning.

In historian and anthropologist Michel-Rolph Trouillot’s foundational book Silencing the Past, he examines the relationship between history, power and silence to explore the ways that certain experiences, historical actors and events are kept out of archival collections and the historical knowledge they help construct.

Trouillot illustrates this through highlighting the Haitian revolution: the possibility of Black slaves successfully revolting against their white colonizers was so inconceivable within the western ideology of white supremacy that it was effectively written out of history.

Recategorizing remnants of racism

The racist pages of Dr. Seuss books are not in danger of being lost forever, but recategorized as evidence of outdated attitudes grounded in racial denigration and stereotyping that no longer have a place in popular culture.

Scholars of racism, like myself, can draw on these images and use them to better understand the past.

Some of Geisel’s earlier work was even more explicitly racist than the titles in question, but hasn’t been erased or destroyed and can be found in museums around the world. His earlier work also appears in scholarship on histories of racism, the Second World War and children’s literature, which would be a great place for the images and text from these six books as well.

There are many ways that racism can and should be tackled that don’t result in the erasure of history. But it shouldn’t be shrugged off — especially by white people who are not in a position to make such determinations.

Nowadays, parents and students object to racist texts used in class, people contact the media, political leaders, HR departments and investigatory commissions to report incidents of racism. Companies are boycotted. Protests are organized, movements are mobilized. And organizations like Dr. Seuss Enterprises revisit their policies to ensure they are not perpetuating old-fashioned or harmful practices.

A teacher reads to a group of students
It is time to retire racist representations.

Not without value

I regularly take racist materials out of general circulation — through yard sales, used book stores, discount stores like Dollarama and in tourist shops — so they might be used in research and teaching. I have made many donations to the Jim Crow Museum of Racist Memorabilia, including some family heirloom photographs of one of my ancestors performing in vaudeville in blackface. In my classes on African history, I carefully use racist objects and texts to help teach students about histories of anti-Black racism.

While abhorrent, these texts, memorabilia and objects can be useful.

No children should see racism as something that is normal or funny. There is a lot of research that has examined the impact of the overwhelmingly negative representations of racialized people in popular culture. The research shows that images hurt people. That they contribute to assumptions that translate into discrimination in hiring, renting, selling, lending, treating, teaching and policing in ways that are hugely consequential for all of us.

Read more:
Caillou cancelled by PBS: Kids’ TV is now more diverse, but must do better

These realities accumulate across people’s lifetimes in ways that devalue us all because they perpetuate unconscious and conscious racism and inequality.

Retiring racist texts from children’s literature is a crucial step in interrupting the racist legacies that continue to hurt and divide us. With careful contextualization, these historical materials can help document and teach people about the realities of racism that are so often belittled or denied. It also makes space, literally and figuratively, for new texts by diverse authors featuring diverse characters that provide a fuller picture of the world that better reflects the rich variety of people, experiences and perspectives it has to offer.

This is especially important considering how much work still needs to be done in galleries, museums, libraries and archives. These institutions are still overwhelmingly white and male.

It is past time we reach social consensus that racist caricatures should be obsolete. Not everything from the past should be kept alive through republication. Move this content to museums and books on racism where it belongs, but don’t keep it circulating among children.The Conversation

Monica Eileen Patterson, Assistant Director, Institute for Comparative Studies in Literature, Art, and Culture (Curatorial Studies) and Associate Professor, Institute of Interdisciplinary Studies, Carleton University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.