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.

‘Iso’, ‘boomer remover’ and ‘quarantini’: how coronavirus is changing our language



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Kate Burridge, Monash University and Howard Manns, Monash University

People love creating words — in times of crisis it’s a “sick” (in the good sense) way of pulling through.

From childhood, our “linguistic life has been one willingly given over to language play” (in the words of David Crystal). In fact, scientists have recently found learning new words can stimulate exactly those same pleasure circuits in our brain as sex, gambling, drugs and eating (the pleasure-associated region called the ventral striatum).




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The shelf-life of slang – what will happen to those ‘democracy sausages’?


We’re leximaniacs at heart and, while the behaviour can occasionally seem dark, we can learn a thing or two by reflecting on those playful coinages that get us through “dicky” times.

Tom, Dick and Miley: in the ‘grippe’ of language play

In the past, hard times birthed playful rhymes. The 1930s Depression gave us playful reduplications based on Australian landmarks and towns – “ain’t no work in Bourke”; “everything’s wrong at Wollongong”; “things are crook at Tallarook”.

Wherever we’re facing the possibility of being “dicky” or “Tom (and) Dick” (rhyming slang for “sick”), we take comfort in language play. It’s one thing to feel “crook”, but it’s another thing again to feel as “crook as Rookwood” (a cemetery in Sydney) or to have a “wog” (synonymous with “bug”, likely from “pollywog”, and unrelated to the ethnic slur “wog”).

Remedies may be found in language’s abilities to translate sores into plasters, to paraphrase William Gouge’s 1631 sermon on the plague. New slang enables us to face our fears head-on — just as when the Parisians began calling a late-18th century influenza “la grippe” to reflect the “seizing” effect it had on people. The word was subsequently taken up in British and American English.

In these times of COVID-19, there are the usual suspects: shortenings like “sanny” (hand sanitizer) and “iso” (isolation), abbreviations like BCV (before corona virus) and WFH (working from home), also compounds “corona moaner” (the whingers) and “zoombombing” (the intrusion into a video conference).

Plenty of nouns have been “verbed” too — the toilet paper/pasta/tinned tomatoes have been “magpied”. Even rhyming slang has made a bit of a comeback with Miley Cyrus lending her name to the virus (already end-clipped to “the Miley”). Some combine more than one process — “the isodesk” (or is that “the isobar”) is where many of us are currently spending our days.

Slanguage in the coronaverse: what’s new?

What is interesting about COVID-lingo is the large number of creations that are blended expressions formed by combining two existing words. The new portmanteau then incorporates meaningful characteristics from both. Newly spawned “coronials” (corona + millennials) has the predicted baby boom in late 2020 already covered.

“Blursday” has been around since at least 2007 but originally described the day spent hung over — it’s now been pressed into service because no one knows what day of the week it is anymore. The official disease name itself, “COVID”, is somewhere between a blend and an acronym because it takes in vowels to make the abbreviation pronounceable (CO from corona, VI from virus and D from disease).

True, we’ve been doing this sort of thing for centuries — “flush” (flash + gush) dates from the 1500s. But it’s never been a terribly significant method of coinage. John Algeo’s study of neologisms over a 50-year period (1941–91) showed blends counting for only 5% of the new words. Tony Thorne’s impressive collection of over 100 COVID-related terms has around 34% blends, and the figure increases to more than 40% if we consider only slang.

Not only have blends become much more common, the nature of the mixing process has changed too. Rather than combining splinters of words, as in “coronials”, most of these corona-inspired mixes combine full words merged with parts of others. The “quarantini” keeps the word “quarantine” intact and follows it with just a hint of “martini” (and for that extra boost to the immune system you can rim the glass with vitamin C powder). Many of these have bubbled up over the past few weeks — “lexit” or “covexit” (the strategies around exiting lockdown and economic hardship), “coronacation” (working from home) and so on.

Humour: from the gallows to quarantimes

Humour emerges as a prevailing feature of these blends, even more so when the overlap is total. In “covidiot” (the one who ignores public health advice and probably hoards toilet paper), both “covid” and “idiot” remain intact. There’s been a flourishing of these types of blend — “covideo party”, “coronapocalypse”, “covidivorce” to name just a few.

Clearly, there is a fair bit of dark comedy in the jokes and memes that abound on the internet, and in many of these coinages too — compounds like “coronacoma” (for the period of shutdown, or that deliciously long quarantine sleep) and “boomer remover” (used by younger generations for the devastation of the baby boomer demographic).




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Oi! We’re not lazy yarners, so let’s kill the cringe and love our Aussie accent(s)


Callous, heartless, yes. But humour is often used as a means of coming to terms with the less happy aspects of our existence. People use the levity as a way of disarming anxiety and discomfort by downgrading what it is they cannot cope with.

Certainly, gallows humour has always featured large in hospital slang (diagnoses like GOK “God only knows” and PFO “pissed and fell over”). For those who have to deal with dying and death every day, it is perhaps the only way to stay sane. COVID challenges us all to confront the biological limits of our own bodies – and these days humour provides the much-needed societal safety valve.

So what will come of these creations? The vast majority will fall victim to “verbicide”, as slang expressions always do.The Conversation

Kate Burridge, Professor of Linguistics, Monash University and Howard Manns, Lecturer in Linguistics, Monash University

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

Do authors really put deeper meaning into poems and stories – or do readers make it up?



Many books, like ‘Charlotte’s Web,’ contain symbolism.
Dmitriy Os Ivanov/Shutterstock.com

Elisabeth Gruner, University of Richmond

Curious Kids is a series for children of all ages. If you have a question you’d like an expert to answer, send it to CuriousKidsUS@theconversation.com.


Do authors really put deeper meaning into poems and stories – or do readers make it up? Jordan, 14, Indianapolis, Indiana


One of my favorite novels is “Charlotte’s Web,” the famous story of a friendship between a pig and a spider.

I often talk about this novel with my students studying children’s literature. At some point, someone always asks about “deeper meaning.” Is it really a story of, say, the cycle of death and rebirth? Or the importance of friendship? Or the significance of writing?

Or is it just a story of life in the barn, with talking animals?

In a way, it doesn’t matter. Because every writer is also a reader, and that means that whatever a writer puts into a story probably came from somewhere else, whether it’s another story, or a poem, or their own life experience.

And readers, too, will bring their own experience – of other stories, other poems and life – and that will direct their interpretation of what they absorb. We can see one example of this if we look at the spider in “Charlotte’s Web.”

The meaning of character

That spider, Charlotte, is based on a real spider. We know this because E.B. White drew pictures of spiders, studied them and made sure to be as accurate as he could when he wrote about them.

‘Charlotte’s Web’ by E. B. White.
Wikimedia Commons, CC BY

But, to a reader she may also represent Arachne, the talented weaver who challenged the goddess Athena and was changed into a spider for her pride. Or she may be the “noiseless patient spider” of Walt Whitman’s poem, who flings out thread-like filaments as the poet flings out words.

She may also be the spider who weaves “the silken tent” of Robert Frost’s poem. Maybe we’ll think about how the spider, like a human storyteller, generates something seemingly out of nothing, which makes her web miraculous.

Each of these spiders symbolizes different things. When we read about her, then, we may think of all those other spiders. Or we may just think about the spider we saw on our own front porch that morning, weaving her own web.

As the writer Philip Pullman said, “The meaning of a story emerges in the meeting between the words on the page and the thoughts in the reader’s mind.”

The reader is in charge

What Pullman is suggesting, then, is that it’s up to readers to make the meaning they want out of the stories they hear and the books they read.

It’s a powerful statement: We are in charge.

This doesn’t mean that anything goes. Meanings come from context, from convention, from older stories and from previous usage. But it’s up to us to interpret what we read and to make the case for how we’re doing it.

Or, as the novelist John Green writes of his books, “They belong to their readers now, which is a great thing – because the books are more powerful in the hands of my readers than they could ever be in my hands.”

What we do with the books we read matters, Green tells us. It’s up to us to make the meaning and up to us to decide what to do with that meaning once we’ve made it.

Hello, curious kids! Do you have a question you’d like an expert to answer? Ask an adult to send your question to CuriousKidsUS@theconversation.com. Please tell us your name, age and the city where you live.

And since curiosity has no age limit – adults, let us know what you’re wondering, too. We won’t be able to answer every question, but we will do our best.The Conversation

Elisabeth Gruner, Associate Professor of English, University of Richmond

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

Friday essay: the meaning of food in crime fiction



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Food can serve many functions in crime fiction, from being used directly as a weapon to expressing cultural belonging, gender or class.
from http://www.shutterstock.com, CC BY-SA

M. Jean Anderson, Victoria University of Wellington; Barbara Pezzotti, Monash University, and Carolina Miranda, Victoria University of Wellington

In English, we might claim we could “murder a good steak”. Italian and Spanish speakers might “kill for a coffee”, and Germans refer to acute hunger as Mordshunger or murderhunger – but do people really kill for food?

Cannibalism is by no means the only way in which crime and food are linked.
Disputes over food may lead to murder. In the Bible, when Abel’s sacrifice of meat is preferred to Cain’s second-rate offering of produce, jealousy results in a deadly attack.

Food may also be a deadly weapon, killing through poison, or as in Roald Dahl’s fiendish short story Lamb to the Slaughter, serving as a blunt instrument.

Indeed, research has shown that the brain does not differentiate between real-life and fictional sensory triggers. Food memories can really bring a story alive.

We are the editors of Blood on the Table: Essays on Food in International Crime Fiction, in which scholars from around the world offer readings of 20th and 21st-century crime writing from several countries. Authors considered include Stieg Larsson, Sara Paretsky, Donna Leon, Andrea Camilleri, Fred Vargas, Ruth Rendell, Anthony Bourdain, Georges Simenon, Arthur Upfield, Leonardo Padura, and Jean-François Parot.

Television productions analysed include the Inspector Montalbano series, the Danish-Swedish Bron/Broen (The Bridge) and its remakes, the English-French The Tunnel and the American The Bridge.

Luca Zingaretti in Inspector Montalbano: loves a good meal.
Palomar,Rai Fiction

Rather than serving to highlight a limited range of functions (as a weapon, as an element of characterisation or setting), food has immense potential in crime fiction. Our book addresses a broad range of questions, including what role recipes play in these narratives, whether crimes can be committed against food and how eating rituals relate to cultural belonging, sex, gender or class.




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Culinary mysteries

In chef and author Anthony Bourdain’s fictional and factual writings, eating and the preparation and experience of food are always situated on the edge. The professional kitchen is not primarily a place where delicious food is produced but is instead a site of violence.

This kitchen-as-crime-scene contradicts its expected role as the cultural and emotional centre of the domestic and social sphere.

A mural in California commemorating the late Anthony Bourdain: his food writings depicted the kitchen as a site of violence.
Eugene Garcia/EPA

Food is a pervasive element of Andrea Camilleri’s Inspector Montalbano franchise. Eating rituals may increase dramatic suspense, but they also mark place and cultural identity and contribute to the psychological characterisation of the detective hero.

Maury Chaykin in The Golden Spiders: A Nero Wolfe Mystery (2000).
A&E Television Networks,Jaffe/Braunstein Films,Pearson Television International

Food plays a crucial role in outlining Montalbano’s distinctive personality, just as it does for other famous detectives such as Georges Simenon’s Maigret, for whom eating is an essential part of any investigation. Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe is a connoisseur of fine cuisine. Vázquez Montalbán’s Pepe Carvalho is both an experienced cook and a famous glutton.

In recent years, culinary mysteries have become very popular in Germany, marketed to both fans of detective fiction and food aficionados. Ella Danz’s Georg Angermüller mystery series features a police inspector who likes to cook and eat. In her novel Geschmacksverwirrung (Taste Confusion), a food critic dies after being force-fed goose liver pâté in the same way geese and ducks are force-fed to produce foie gras.

While investigating the crime, the detective confronts issues like factory farming and ethical food production. Solving crimes requires skills that can equally be used to discover hidden truths about food. Truffled goose liver pâté may contain large amounts of pork fat and only a tiny amount of truffle. Factory animals never get to see the green grass and blue sky on the packaging.

Danz provides an appendix with recipes, a practice that has proven popular with readers. Adding recipes to culinary mysteries also allows bookstores to display the books in both the cook book and and mystery sections, thus doubling exposure.

Feminist food rituals

Feminist crime fiction sheds a different light on food. Sue Grafton, Sara Paretsky and Dominique Sylvain all portray eating as an expression of female independence and agency in opposition to gender norms, challenging the cultural ideal of thinness.

The eating habits of Grafton’s Kinsey Millhone not only signal that women are allowed to enjoy heavy food (McDonald’s), but they are just as much a commentary on the obsession with health and healthy food in American culture. In the French context, both Sylvain’s and Fred Vargas’s female detectives show strong appreciation for good food, prepared well.

Even eating McDonalds can be a sign of liberation for a fictional female detective.
Shutterstock

Another, somewhat opposing idea in the novels is an indifferent or oblivious attitude to eating. The female detective who stares into her empty fridge is a recurrent scene in all the series, representing another blow to the traditional association of femininity and domesticity. Replacing marriage and family with friends is a typical feature of feminist crime fiction that rejects traditional gender roles, highlighting the female detective’s independence.

Bars and restaurants play a crucial role in this. The importance attached to the local eating place that functions as a headquarters inhabited by friends, as opposed to family, reflects the detective’s liberation from the domestic sphere and traditional femininity.

The female protagonist and first-person narrator of Ruth Rendell’s novella Heartstones is 16-year-old Elvira, whose mother has died from cancer. Through her retrospective narrative, the novella follows Elvira’s descent into anorexia, her obsession with her emotionally distant father Luke and her relationship with her younger sister Spinney, who overeats.

The clues Elvira later discovers suggest Spinney murdered Luke and his new fiancée, and may murder her, too. The narrative focuses on the denial of food and the compulsion either to eat or to avoid eating. Food is the enemy, a form of poison, and eating is the crime. Rendell uses the domestic noir genre, which highlights intimate experiences from the personal and domestic sphere to create a feminist critique of eating disorders and the patriarchal family as a “crime scene”.

Food and identity

Like Saga Noren (Bron/Broen) and Sarah Lund (The Killing), Lisbeth Salander in Stieg Larsson’s Millennium trilogy is lacking in emotional intelligence, which prevents her from establishing a personal relationship to the social code of food. The emphasis on the very narrow range of food she consumes stands in clear contrast to the other characters in the stories. She lives on frozen instant meals, mostly pizza, heated in the microwave or the oven, bread, apples, and of course coffee, which she usually consumes alone.

Rooney Mara as Lisbeth Sander in The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo: she lives on instant meals.
Columbia Pictures Corporation,Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM),Scott Rudin Productions

Eating frozen pizza not only blurs the boundaries between child and grown-up, but also introduces a male characteristic — refusing to take on the female role in the kitchen — that fits perfectly in the masculine area of the nerd and the hacker.

Frozen pizza can be deeply symbolic.
Wikimedia Commons

The relationship between food and identity, and the use of food as a symbol of the diversity of identities, place Cuban writer Leonardo Padura’s work in line with recent trends of international crime fiction. He uses traditional food and drink to expand and challenge the definition of Cubanness. Cooking is a way to preserve the richness and variety of local and traditional culture.

Many traditional Cuban dishes, such as the stew ajiaco, are under threat because of the scarcity of ingredients. Padura suggests here that the richness of Cuban culture is a victim of the revolutionary government’s attempt to create a coherent national narrative and a standardised identity model.

National dishes represent identity in other contexts, too. Cultural differences appear in Georges Simenon’s work through references to food. Where, when, what and with whom people eat are all potentially useful clues for Maigret. They can serve first, when among people of the same nationality, to underline difference and make clear the boundaries between people. Second, when foreigners are involved, they can confirm similarity, suggesting unity and togetherness.

Rupert Davies as Inspector Maigret in the 1960 television adaptation of Simenon’s novels.
BBC

In the case of the English-born Australian writer Arthur Upfield, food offers insights into complex race relations and colonial influences on the traditional owners of the land. One example is seen in Upfield’s most famous protagonist, Napoleon Bonaparte (Bony), and the detective’s ability to identify, through observation alone, an Aboriginal Australian who has been living on a white man’s menu rather than a traditional indigenous diet.

Ranging from “meals” to “grub”, food is critical to establishing, maintaining and handing on cultural practices and social identity. The suspects in Bony’s investigations — male, female, single, married, working class, upper class — are separated by what, and how much, they eat and drink as easily as they are by gender, living situation and occupation.

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The Conversation

The representation of food in international crime fiction, running the gamut from giggles to gore, is clearly a rich field for exploration.

M. Jean Anderson, Associate Professor / Reader in French, Victoria University of Wellington; Barbara Pezzotti, Lecturer in Italian Studies, Monash University, and Carolina Miranda, Senior Lecturer, Director of European Languages and Cultures, Victoria University of Wellington

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