How Words Evolve… a Darwinian look a the English Language
On a rainy, spring evening in May, Patricia T. O’Conner, former editor of the New York Times Book Review and author of Woe is I and Origins of the Specious gave a talk at the Mid-Manhattan Library, for the 4th year in a row, entitled, “How Words Evolve… a Darwinian look at the English Language." You might think a talk on grammar would be drab—it was anything but. She briefly discussed how new words are formed, how old ones change, and even how the dinosaurs among them become extinct. Did you know that the color, puce, has a Greek origin; that “Serendip” is the former name of Sri Lanka, and that Horace Walpole coined the word serendipity?
The English Language, though Germanic, has many borrowed words, such as puce; compound words (baseball, rollerblade, etc.,); shortened words, NABISCO—National Biscuit Company, BLOG—web + log. Not surprised yet? Here is how the word taxicab came into use. In the 1830s the word “cab” was shortened from the 19th century French word, Cabriolet (covered horse-drawn carriage). The word, “taximeter” has a French, German and Latin derivation, and it means to fit a cab with a meter to calculate the fare. In 1907 the word “taxi-cab” first came into use and its meaning remains unchanged.
Many nouns become verbs, such as the word, “cook.” It began as a noun, and the verb, “to cook” did not come along until later. However, the noun, “impact” began as a verb and became a noun. As a verb, it meant “to pack in.” In this example, the verb accommodated the new use as a noun. Other words were formed using parts of the body, such as, “to elbow” someone, and “to head” in the same direction. Some words acquire their meanings through conversion, such as, “cute.” The word, cute started from acute (Latin) in the late 1500s. It once meant a “sharp-witted” person, and later it was used with a broader meaning, “cunning.” Then later it took on the meaning, “attractive,” but in a smallish way according to Ms. O’Conner, for we wouldn’t describe Buckingham Palace as being cute. The word, “awe” means fear, dread, terror of God; it took on religious overtones, such as reverence in the presence of greatness. The Latin word for nice is “nescius.” It originally meant stupid, foolish, and in the late 18th century it began to mean pleasant. It has been around since then and continues to be overused. Sophisticated once meant corrupted. The word “dashboard” was adapted and has not become extinct. The word, “geek” was recorded in 19th century Northern England and once meant a foolish person, then later, in the mid-20th century it meant an anti-social person. Today, it means someone devoted to computers.
Ninety-four people packed two sixth floor conference rooms at the Mid-Manhattan Library to listen to Ms. O’Conner. The bookseller had a brisk sale of her books at the end of her talk, and a good time was had by all.
Do you love words and learning word origins? Remember you can access the entire Oxford English Dictionary from home with your library card!