You wouldn’t be reading this if you weren’t a book and a language buff. “Buff” comes from Greek boubalos, or buffalo. The colour of ox hide is “buff” or yellowish beige. In the early 20th century, the word “buff” described enthusiastic fire-watchers because of the buff uniforms worn by New York volunteer firemen. By and by, an enthusiast came to be known as a buff.
Meanings of words are constantly, if slowly, changing – which is probably why so many people feel that Shakespearean English is really a foreign language. This drift of meaning, called “catachresis” – there’s a big word for you – “is as widespread as it is curious”.
When James II of England first saw St. Paul’s Cathedral he called it amusing, awful and artificial. That meant that it was pleasing to look at, deserving of awe, and an exemplar of artifice or fine workmanship.
If you had said, “The assassin maimed the groggy rogue,” a couple of centuries ago, you’d have meant: “The hashish eater knocked out the drunken beggar’s front tooth.”
Once upon a time, the phrase: “The auburn-haired buxom character ate a nice omelette,” would have flummoxed and alarmed an eavesdropper. To him it would have meant something like this: “The fair-haired pliant, pleasant branding iron ate an ignorant thin blade.”
Auburn hair was fair, as albus meant white. It passed over into Old French and Middle English as auborne, and then, perhaps because of its spelling, somewhere along the way it got confused with brown! Related words based on the Latin albus or white include albatross, albino, album, albumen, and daub, which originally meant “to apply whitewash to plaster.”
“Nice” is one of those words we were taught never to use. It’s insipid and vacuous, we were told in school. But nonetheless, “nice” deserves a paragraph of its own. It originally meant “ignorant.” Through the ages, “nice” underwent a series of changes, variously meaning “shy,” “fastidious”, and “refined.” In the 18th century, it began to take on its modern sense of “agreeable” or “pleasing.” But only when we talk of a “nice distinction” or the “niceties of behaviour,” in the sense of “precise” or “exacting,”, are we justified in using the word.
Book buffs, or “bibliobibuli” would not want me to skim over “character.” It descends from Greek kharakter, which meant a branding iron. Since we talk of “branding a traitor,” who would have thought that a person of character needed to be branded?
The prude escaped gaily. This would have meant: The good and honourable woman took off her cloak in a joyous manner.
“Gay” in its original sense was an adjective used in the sense of “lighthearted and carefree.” It comes from Old French gai whose origin is unknown and first appeared in English in the 13th century, immediately beginning to take on new shades of meaning. By the 16th century, the word acquired connotations of loose morality. In 1951, the phrase “gay cat” or homosexual boy was first recorded in underworld and prison slang. Its noun use is seen from the 1970s.
If someone had said: “A sad snob snooped about the pavilion,” would you have, in your wildest dreams translated this into modern parlance as: “The valiant cobbler ate on the sly in the flapping tent (reminiscent of a butterfly’s fluttering wings)?”
Considering how the meanings of words are in constant flux, it’s no wonder that “garble” once meant “to sort out,” not “to mix up.”
That “manufacture” from the Latin root for hand, once signified something (unsurprisingly) made by hand. That “crafty,” now a disparaging term was once a word of praise, meaning strong or powerful. And that a “cranky” person was once a rogue, feigning sickness.
“Zeal” has lost its original pejorative sense, but “zealot” has not. “To worry” was “to strangle,” or “to seize by the throat and tear.” In 1922, “queer” acquired its modern sense of homosexual in American English.
Like “heckle” and “tenterhooks,” “tease” comes to us from the medieval textile industry. “Tease” refers to the process of separating the tangled fibres of wool or flax so that they could be spun into thread. Once the cloth was woven, its surface was combed with the burrs of the “teasel” plant (hence, “tease”) to raise a soft, fluffy nap on the cloth.
When you “heckled” flax stems, you were extracting fibre from them by dashing them down on the heckle, a board embedded with long, sharp spikes. Woollen cloth was stretched out on a large frame called a “tenter” to even it out. The tenter had a heavy crossbeam on each end, set with large, sharp hooks. You can almost feel the tenterhooks piercing your flesh when you wait for the exam results.
“Neck” was once used to describe a parcel of land. This meaning has died out, except in the expression “neck of the woods.” Also, have you ever wondered why a bank teller is a bank teller? “Tell” once meant to count. “Neck” and “tell’ are examples of word fossils, remnants of bygone meanings.
Words sometimes change by becoming more specific. To “starve” was to die, but now it refers to hunger alone as the cause. A deer was once any animal, as it still is in the German tier. “Meat” was any food and “worm” was a term for any crawling creature.
A lifelong reader and writer, Debika Lahiri has written a novel. She conducts nature walks in Delhi's gardens and parks.