Etymology is the study of the origins of words.
As languages develop the meaning of words can change over time. This causes confusion and misunderstanding when communicating with other people.
In a world were you make a living at communicating, advertising or marketing, it is not only important to have clarity in your message, it is also important to think of your target market and understand how they understand words and messages.
On the positive side that words change meaning over time, it has been noted that languages that stay alive, adapt and grow over time.
An example would be the word nice. Nice used to be an insult and meant foolish or stupid in the 13th century and it went through many changes right through to the 18th century with meanings like wanton, extravagant, elegant, strange, modest, thin, and shy or coy. Now it means a good & pleasing or thoughtful & kind.
Silly meant blessed or happy in the 11th century and went through pious, innocent, harmless, pitiable and feeble minded before ending up as foolish or stupid.
Pretty started as crafty this changed to clever or skillfully made, then to fine and ended up as beautiful.
Some other changes are:
Word ______ Original Meaning
Awful________ Deserving of awe
Brave_________ Cowardice (as in bravado)
Girl__________ Young person of either sex
Neck_________ Parcel of land (as in neck of the woods)
Nuisance______ Injury, harm
There are several reasons for words change meaning. One is the influence of other languages and cultures. Throughout history, many nations through conquering or intermixing with one another, introduced their own languages into the mix. Another reason is the predominate use of slang words. We get so used to using them that many times we forget that we even are.
So when it comes to defining words, there is the standard dictonary, which by the way can show multiple meanings for one word, and there is the definition of the word in slang.
As well, slang words spread faster and are used more often than before, making them common place in many societies.
Due to the advancement of science and technology, new words are also being created at an amazing rate. Keeping up with some of the new words and your usage of them will help in your efforts understand and to become a master communicator.
Once every ten years, the Merriam- Webster dictionary is updated. Their 11th edition for 2003 included some 10,000 new words along with 100,000 new meanings to words already existing and some 225,00 revised definitions.
Some of the slang words that have made it in the dictionary are;
Headbanger- a hard rock musician and a fan
Dead presidents- Paper currency
Prairie Gophering – people who peer above their cubicles at work.
McJob- Low paying and dead-end work.
Comb-over- an attempt to cover a bald spot
You can learn about more words in an etymology dictionary.
We can use this as another reminder, especially when it is important to have a group goal achieved, that what a word means to us, may not have the same meaning to someone else.
There is also the emotional reactions that different people have to certain words. But that’s another story…