I love all the books (and there’s a lot of them) in my home library but the giant-sized Webster’s Dictionary (Unabridged) is one of my special favourites – all 3562 of its tiny-print pages. Each of its entries gives not only the current meaning of a word but also its origin and change/s in denotation and connotation over the centuries. Some words have flipped their meanings entirely. ‘Silly’, for example, now means ‘unwise, in want of understanding or common sense, foolish’; but the word originally came from the Old English (Anglo-Saxon) sælig meaning ‘happy, good, blessed’. We can easily imagine that part of the reason that ‘silly’ took a dive from the positive into the negative was the rise of rationalism and scientific dominance over religion.
On the other hand, ‘pretty’ has experienced a lift in meaning. In the original Anglo-Saxon prættig meant crafty, sly, deceptive. Well, maybe we can fill in the gaps as to how the more familiar meaning of ‘pleasingly attractive, good-looking’ evolved.
But, the big Webster’s is getting old now and, while its 1932 publication date has allowed me to dip into it for invaluable insights about the origins and evolution of much of our English language, the vernacular is a very fluid thing. This is why the modern dictionary compilers are always adding, and sometimes subtracting, and often re-defining, words and their meanings. Just this year, Merriam Webster added such words as ‘truther’ – one who believes that the truth about something important is being hidden from the public and seeks to redress or expose the obstruction; and ‘photo bomb’ – someone moving deliberately into a photo shot as a joke or a prank.
The Concise Oxford English Dictionary (OED) added words like the double superlative ‘worstest’ to match its inclusion of ‘bestest’ in 2014. Other new entries in this year’s OED include ‘mankini’, ‘cyberbullying’, ‘sexting’ and ‘slow food’. There have also been changes and/or expansions in meaning for words like ‘friend’ which now takes in the Facebook variety of buddy. The word ‘follower’ has undergone a similar expansion – from old-style disciples to Twitter associations.
Now, is that pretty? Or is there something a little bit silly about that!