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The Secret Life of Words

Etymology reveals why the word ‘literally’ is so annoying (among other things)

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Closeup of glasses on a page scribbled with words.
Photo: Janaka Dharmasena/EyeEm/Getty Images

Etymology studies the history of words by tracing their evolution from the earliest occurrences and their transmissions across languages and by analyzing their components and cognates. At first glance, etymology appears a dreary science practiced by bespectacled, doleful etymologists in dingy, stifling rooms, burying their erudite heads into dusty books and eviscerating the hapless corpora. However, this view is far from the truth. Even for people who are not professionally linked to this field, etymology is fascinating and entertaining.

A group of people — a subculture, a community, a civilization — invents words, nurtures them, transforms them, and discards them. In physics, the observer effect describes the concept that it’s impossible to observe something in the world without influencing it in some way. Words are like that, too. By using a word and actualizing its potential, a speaker is already affecting its position and trajectory, ever so little. That word you just used has already moved on, guided and shaped by countless individuals across the world this very instant. On the other hand, if you study the evolution of the word, your use of the word takes a backseat. You either anchor the extant word or measure its velocity across ages but not both. Your very observation, as exemplified by the observer effect, affects the system. However, as all these changes are so infinitesimal, you may be excused for your disbelief.

Apparently, words are quite mobile; even the word “mobile” surprises with its mobility. Today, in places like the U.K., it refers to the omnipresent mobile phone; however, originally, it is a diminution of the Latin phrase “mobile vulgus” — a pejorative for “the fickle crowd.” The phrase, as a condescending critique of the hoi polloi, the common people, is akin to the Greek word “ochlocracy” — mob rule. Its modern derivative is “mobocracy.” You would have by now divined the genus of the word “mob.”

Another word that has lost its bearings is “surreal.” Today, it’s used to mean something unusual, out of the ordinary, or even preposterous. A “surreal statement” is an “absurd statement,” a “surreal beauty” is an “impossible beauty,” and a “surreal dream” is, well, a “hallucination.” When Guillaume Apollinaire, a French poet, playwright, novelist, and art critic, used the word “surrealism” in his letter dated March 1917, he meant the visionary power of the human mind to arouse sublime images, thoughts, and meanings from the mundane. Today, the word has traded its transcendentalism for a more terrestrial existence.

Now, for something “grotesque.” “Grotto,” meaning a cave, gave rise to “grottesco” for something that is “similar to a cave.” The word “grotto” was used for a cave-like place discovered in a palace in Rome in the early 15th century when a young lad fell through a fissure into a dark chamber whose walls were carved with therianthropic images. Then, the word “grotesque” conveyed a mystic wonder veneered with a layer of abomination. Now, it is mostly used to mean the fanciful and the bizarre. Interestingly, the dictionary still lists the “grotesque” with its hardly used original meaning, i.e., “a style of decorative art characterized by fanciful or fantastic human and animal forms.”

Now onto something annoying! This word literally grates on your nerves. It literally gives you the heebie-jeebies. It is literally boring. It is literally one of the most overused and abused words. By now, you must be literally at your wits’ end. This word “literally” originally meant “in a literal sense,” something actually happening, or a primary meaning of a term. The extent of the semantic shift this word has undergone is colossal, so much so that we are now unsure of its intended sense. Today, this word is commonly used to convey a sense of helpless emotion. It is also used to add emphasis to something that is not even true, does not exist, or is impossible, e.g., “literally turn the world upside down.” From a literal sense to emphasis to impossibility, the word has traversed a treacherous landscape and has now ended up in no man’s land.

This study of the evolution of words is, in addition to etymology, also a part of onomasiology, semasiology, semantics, and historical linguistics. The phenomenon known as semantic shift is also called lexical change, semantic change, semantic progression, semantic development, or semantic drift. Semantic changes happen through 10 methods, out of which four are broadly defined for their wider role in this process: widening, narrowing, pejoration, and amelioration.

Widening is when a word takes on new meaning beyond its original usage, e.g., “allergy.” The word originally referred to sickness caused by eating or coming into contact with something that doesn’t necessarily cause sickness in others, but it has now widened to also mean dislike for something.

Narrowing is the opposite of widening where the word is whittled down from its ambit and now refers to a narrower sense. “Accident” originally referred to a chance event or something that happened suddenly but now specifically refers to sudden, unfortunate events.

Sometimes, a word is stripped of its soul for esoteric reasons and must transmogrify to another word.

Pejoration, also known as degeneration, is the change in meaning of a word to refer to something pejorative, e.g., “crafty,” which originally referred to “being skillful” but now means something cagey or dodgy.

Amelioration, the opposite of pejoration, is when a word acquires a positive and pleasant sense. For example, “fond” originally referred to “silly, foolish,” but now it has acquired the pleasant sense of “having a strong like for something.”

Some other modes of semantic changes are metaphor, metonymy, synecdoche, and hyperbole.

Now, enjoy identifying the type of semantic transformations in the below words:

  • Wit — now: fun, funny, humorous; then: clever, apt humor, intelligence, acumen, thinker
  • Fizzle — now: to fail, failure; then: to fart quietly
  • Buxom — now: large-breasted; then: compliant or obedient
  • Fantastic — now: unbelievable, superlative, excellent; then: based on fantasy or imagination, of fantasy
  • Girl — now: young female; then: young person of any gender
  • Backlog — now: pending work; then: largest log (literally!)
  • Prestigious — now: honored; then: trickery, illusion, conjuring
  • Bully — now: to be cruel, insulting, or threatening; then: a sweetheart, a fine chap
  • Cute — now: attractive; then: clever, shrewd
  • Meat — now: animal flesh for food; then: all foods
  • Myriad — now: a great number; then: referred to the number 10,000 in ancient Greece

Another accursed mode of change is for a meaning to change its word. Sometimes, a word is stripped of its soul for esoteric reasons and must transmogrify to another word. This is because the word has become so commonplace that it no longer signifies a special meaning; a euphemism loses its polish and now abrades; or simply a word is suddenly considered too terrene for comfort or political correctness. Any of these reasons necessitates a new word for the old meaning.

A “madhouse” is an institute providing care to the mentally ill but is now offensive. It also means “a place of uproar or confusion.” Human beings’ kind predilection to soften rough edges finds its salvation in euphemism. Thus came “Bethlehem” — from a charity dedicated to the service of the suffering — and from this branched “bedlam.” A new word had to be minted. “Asylum,” for some time, served the intended purpose; the word also signifies poise, calm, and peace. Since these attributes are not often found in “asylums,” the descriptive “mental institution” replaced it. This is again whittled down to just “institution” since “mental” had acquired a politically incorrect intonation. What euphemism will replace the extant expression, no one can foretell.

The surest way to learn new words and also to easily remember them is word analysis or word study. Students of morphology break down words to their smallest units of meaning, called morphemes. Morphemes can be combined and permuted to improve the vocabulary. They also help to remember those words better. This can be illustrated by a favorite demonological example. If a “condominium” is a townhouse complex, a “planetarium” is a building with a device to project celestial images, a “crematorium” is a structure in which the bodies of the dead are cremated, a “ministerium” is a group of ministers in the Evangelical and Reformed Church, then surely a “demonium” is a place of the demons. We also know the prefix “pan-” means “completely and involving all.” Then, “pan+demon+ium” must only mean a place where all demons reside. However, the word has almost lost its very soul. Although it still retains a dictionary meaning of “hell” with a capital “P,” the word is now almost exclusively used to mean “a wild uproar or a chaotic situation,” leaving no space for its original meaning, not even via “demonym.” Since we have no care for the demons anymore, they have to make do without a name for their residence.

Such is the significance of semantic change!