Meaning (1)

A Reflection on Meanings

Here’s a quick and easy way to impress at dinner parties. Take a word, look at the etymology and usage in history and make some sweeping and dramatic statement about it based on this as a comment of how the word is used now, and then everyone thinks you’re remarkably erudite and witty. One of my favourites is the word disseminate, which is widely used in polite society, particularly the education and training world which I live in. Now, etymologically speaking, this is in fact related to the Latin word for “seed”, from whence springs forth (see what I did there?) words like seminar and of course, semen. Now noone would ever suggest that disseminate is in fact the act of sprinkling one’s seed around, particularly as it’s rather tricky for half the population, but it’s a nice slightly rude gag that tickles amateur historical linguists (i.e. most people).

Another one of these is grammar. Etymologically this is related to the word glamour, stemming from a common root about casting a spell (“a glamour”) over people, bewitching and entrancing in its mystery. This again is a fact often used by linguistics writers (who should really know better) to make some point along the lines that grammar isn’t boring, but is in fact mysterious and romantic (which is true, of course). But again, the words have traced two distinct paths down history and come to mean now two entirely separate things. 

The important thing to remember is the meaning now, not the meaning as it might once have been. Good, as you might imagine, is related to the word god, but that’s no reflection on the benefits of religious belief – the two words are different creatures entirely. Spell comes from the anglo saxon for word or speech, but again, this only reflects the regard with which the early English held the act of speaking and creating words, and that writing was a craft restricted to the priestly classes (who doubled as wizards in the pre-Christian era). One of my favourite smug moments in a book comes from a character in Stephen Fry’s The Liar who points out that poppycock comes from the Dutch pappe kak or soft shit.

Swearing (particularly the  so called milder forms) is a fine mine for these silly etymological games. Berk, as many people know, comes from the cockney rhyming slang “Berkeley Hunt” (work it out yourself). Sod is a contraction of sodomite, a reference to what my Anglo Saxon ancestors referred to as buggery, itself coming from Bulghar (as in Bulgaria – for reasons unknown to me). There’s a whole pile of meaning to unravel here – sod and bugger are both fairly unassuming terms but still with a little emotional force. The emotional force doesn’t come from any reference to any the act of anal sex, (things have largely moved on from there, I hope), but from the knowledge that these words are taboo for whatever reason. All three of these have lost much of their emotional impact now – we don’t equate the word berk with it’s rhyming cousin, and the two words again have gone down a different path. There’s a very good book on this called (unsuprisingly) Swearing by Geoffrey Hughes.

By the way, thinking of debunking etymologies, fornicate under command of the king is a fun but inaccurate source of the common word oftena associated with sex – the orgins are weird and obscure, largely because of the taboo nature of the word, which unlike its four-lettered cousins, has never been respectable (scan Chaucer as often as you like, it’s not there, as young men doing a-level literature will quickly tell you.)

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