I have a fascination with a prejudice in language. Indulge me by considering each set of four synonyms, then speedily categorizing individual words into two lists, one labeled “classy” & one labeled “not classy.” Don't overthink -- just go for it.
big large vast great
compact miniature little small
thin slender gaunt skinny
chubby stout fat obese
clever astute smart intelligent
Next, compare your lists with these:
The words on the left are words derived from Norse, Frisian, Dutch, and various Germanic sources. The words on the right mostly come through French from Latin, though one comes directly from Latin, one is Latin through Italian and stout is a Middle Low German word that came to English through French (that last stage being salient to this topic).
If you placed most of the words on the left in the “not classy” column and most of the words on the right in the “classy” column, like me, you have absorbed a prejudice that linguists attribute to the events following the Battle of Hastings in 1066. After the big win, the Norman nobles who supported William the Conqueror (formerly known as Guillaume, since he was born in Normandy, France) became the ruling class of England. French became the language of the courts and royalty. This set French and its mother language, Latin, far above the everyday Germanic, Anglo-Saxon & Celtic tongues spoken by the lowly peasants. This system lasted for centuries, as have the prejudices born of it.
This prejudice has some intriguing applications for those who write. Precise application of classy vs. non-classy words can subtly influence readers’ impressions of characters & events, encouraging or discouraging trust or likability.
Dang, those authors are tricky cusses, aren’t they?
Please let me know whether any of this rings true. Did your lists look mostly like my lists or am I just some nutcase who puts too much time into thinking about words?
My thanks go out to this week’s sources: the OED, Merriam-Webster, Pixabay, Wordnik, & History.com, & Etymonline.
Last week, upon joking with my wife that I was “plying her with wine,” I found myself wondering about that usage of the word ply. What I discovered was far more rich and robust than the inexpensive swill we were sharing for dinner. One might even argue that the word ply has an “intriguing bouquet, a delightful aftertaste & a remarkable finish.”
The Oxford English Dictionary devotes about a half page to the word ply, which initially meant to apply, employ, or work busily at, and entered English in the late 1300s from Middle French. Before that, it spent some time in Latin, & before that it resided in a hazily defined tongue etymologists call “Proto-Indo-European.”
The meaning I was using at the dinner table, to press one to take, appeared first in 1676, but ply also has all these meanings:
-to bend, bow, fold, or double
-to bend in will or disposition
-to adapt or accommodate
-to yield or be pliable
-to bend in reverence
-to bend, twist or writhe forcibly
-to comply or consent
-to cover with something bent or folded
-to draw out by bending or twisting
-to occupy oneself busily
-to use, handle or wield vigorously
-to practice or work at
-to solicit with importunity
-to beat against the wind
-to traverse by rowing or sailing
This modest three-letter word (or word part) plays a role in these words & more:
plywood, pliant, comply, compliance, compliant, apply, appliance, application, multiply, multiplication, reply, complex, plectrum, pliers, & (believe it or not) flax.
This week, please ply me with a question. What word have you heard or used recently that caused you to think, “Hmmm. Where’d that one come from?”
My thanks go out to this week’s sources: Merriam Webster, the OED, Wordnik & Etymonline.
For years now I’ve been laughingly referring to myself as a minion. I'm a minion at the local Food Bank, a minion at the Central Coast Writing Conference, & a minion for the Central/Coastal California Region of the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators.
In my California baby-boomer upbringing, I understood that a minion was a devoted helper – usually of some nefarious villain. Nefarious villains aside, I’ve always had an affinity for the word. Imagine my surprise upon discovering that minion has a myriad of deliciously disparate meanings.
The OED devotes two thirds of a page to minion, which appeared first in English about the year 1500. Though most etymologists believe it came from the Old High German word minnja or minna, meaning love, others put its source in the Celtic combining form, min- or small, which was borrowed from Latin. The OED’s definitions (slightly abbreviated) for minion include:
a. a beloved object, darling or favorite
b. a lover, lady-love, mistress or paramour
c. a dearest friend or favorite child, servant or animal
d. one who owes everything to his patron’s favor & is ready to purchase its continuance by base compliances
e. a form of address, meaning darling or dear one
f. a hussy, jade, servile creature or slave
g. a gallant, an exquisite
h. an adjective meaning dainty, fine, elegant, pretty or neat
The last few OED meanings are really out there.
a. a small kind of ordnance
b. a type of peach
c. a type of lettuce
d. a typesetter’s term identifying a medium-size font
Some non-OED definitions compiled by the wonderful folks at Wordnik include:
a. an obsequious follower or sycophant
b. a pert or saucy girl or woman
c. a loyal servant of a powerful being
Good followers, I will keep my theories to myself in hopes that you will spout forth your own. How did this one simple word end up being its own antonym in multiple ways? And what’s up with the lettuce, anyway?
My thanks go out to this week’s sources the OED, Collins Dictionary, Wordnik, Etymonline,
I write for teens, narrate audio books, bake bread, play music, and ponder the wonder of words in a foggy little town on California's central coast.
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