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.

What is a ‘Beach Read?’

The link below is to an article that considers ‘just what is a beach read?’ Me – whatever I want to read should I want to read at the beach. Personally, I wouldn’t read at the beach, but that’s a personal choice obviously.

For more visit:

Terry Pratchett, Jane Austen, and the definition of literature

Annie Coral Demosthenous, University of Western Australia

Last month in The Guardian, with a piece headlined Get Real. Terry Pratchett is not a Literary Genius, literary critic Jonathan Jones claimed Terry Pratchett’s books should not be read, because they are not literature:

Everyone reads trash sometimes, but why are we now pretending, as a culture, that it is the same thing as literature? The two are utterly different.

Jones informed us that he hadn’t read anything by Pratchett, because his time was better spent reading Jane Austen. In presenting Pratchett and Austen as polar opposites, Jones made certain lazy assumptions about both the nature and function literature, which deserve to be challenged.

Jones’ article irritated many, and has drawn criticism for reinforcing an elitist and exclusionary definition of culture, based on the assumption that there is a singular definition of “literary” fiction independent of the reader’s individual experience of either life or reading.

Yet the definition of “literature” is changeable, and inextricably linked with fashion. As the author Christopher Priest has pointed out, works now considered classics were not necessarily defined as high culture when they were written, and works considered literary when published do not always survive over time.

Priest also observes that many classics began life as popular publications – the story of Americans waiting at the wharf to discover the fate of Little Nell springs to mind. What is missing from this debate is direct engagement with Pratchett’s work and its relation to literary high culture.

So what is high culture? And what do we mean when we call something “literary”? According to Jones, “actual literature” is “harder to get to grips with than a Discworld novel, but it is more worth the effort”.

As this definition is not particularly helpful, let us consider some characteristics commonly considered “literary”: the elegant and adventurous use of language, engagement with themes of universal significance, inventiveness of style, defiance of genre classification.

Jones accuses Pratchett’s prose of being “very ordinary”, missing Pratchett’s delight in locating the extraordinary within the ordinary: his writing is simultaneously clear and complex, much like Austen’s. Both are masters of aphorism; compare for example:

It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife (Austen, Pride and Prejudice).


The presence of those seeking the truth is infinitely to be preferred to the presence of those who think they’ve found it (Pratchett, Monstrous Regiment).

Both are wry observations of human nature, and both make the reader stop and think.

Pratchett seldom allows language to exist unchallenged; words are stretched and twisted by new and surprising contexts, opening the reader’s eye to the arbitrary relation of signifier and signified, often eliciting surprised laughter.

The Truth (2000), the 25th Discworld novel, reflects on the meaning of “truth” and people’s propensity to look for it, structured around the aphorism that “a lie can run around the world before the truth has got its boots on”.

William, a compulsive truth-teller, sets up the first newspaper on the Discworld, and discovers that the truth is hard to find. He is horrified when readers assume everything printed in the paper is true, assuming “otherwise they wouldn’t let them put it in”.

The novel concludes with the statement that “nothing has to be true for ever. Just for long enough, to tell you the truth”. This challenges readers’ assumptions about objective truth, but positions it as ephemeral rather than non-existent.

Pratchett’s writing style is economical, elegant and adventurous. In The Truth, he takes the same approach to chapters as Joyce takes to punctuation in the final chapter of Ulysses (1918): he doesn’t use any. Instead, a multitude of episodic narratives fit together like scenes in a film, jumping between characters, location and time without losing the narrative thread.

The Truth begins by tracing a rumour flying through the city of Ankh-Morpork: “The dwarfs can turn lead into gold”. As different characters hear the rumour, (alchemists, wizards, thieves, the dwarfs themselves), the image of both city and world emerges. The rumour, like a panning camera, stops when it reaches William.

Pratchett’s work is often underestimated because it is classified as “genre fiction” rather than literary fiction. Yet Pratchett’s relationship with genre is complex and adversarial. He does not reproduce genre stereotypes, he sets them up to be deconstructed, or at least affectionately mocked.

Rincewind, the original Discworld hero, is represented as completely un-heroic: a cowardly wizard who cannot do magic, or, indeed, spell the word wizard. He is joined in his adventures by Cohen the Barbarian, now old, toothless and suffering from lumbago, who nevertheless is still a more successful hero than Rincewind.

Austen often flirts with genre in a similar way. Northanger Abbey (1817) is a mock-Gothic romance, which satirises the stereotypes of Gothic fiction by reproducing them and then allowing reality to intrude. The novel begins with a discourse on Catherine’s unsuitability as heroine, listing the characteristics one expects of heroines and locating their absence in Catherine.

When visiting Northanger Abbey, Catherine goes looking for manifestations of Gothic tropes, and is disappointed at every turn: the hidden papers she finds are laundry receipts, the old Abbey has been restored and redecorated, and her love-interest’s mother was not murdered, after all.

Austen’s novels are no harder or easier to read than Pratchett’s; both use wit and satire to carry out social critique, and in both cases people who don’t find them funny tend not to enjoy them.

Reading Pratchett, like reading Austen, requires commitment, and a willingness to look under the surface. It’s a shame Jonathan Jones was unable to do so before writing his follow-up article on Pratchett – for which he had, belatedly, read one book by the author – this past weekend.

The Conversation

Annie Coral Demosthenous, Honorary Research Fellow, European Languages and Studies, University of Western Australia

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.