Muse

If I’ve learnt anything in the last couple of weeks it’s that working a nine-to-five-thirty job doing writey typey things is not conducive to frequent blogging. That being said, I have had time to muse on a couple of interesting words here and there, including the word muse.

First of all, you might think that artistic inspiration would be linked to being absorbed in thought but actually the noun muse and the verb to muse are completely different, unrelated words, which just happen to be homonyms (words which are spelt the same but have different meanings).

Muse the noun came into English in the late 14th century from Latin via Old French. The original word was the Greek Mousa, which meant ‘the Muse’ as well as ‘music, song’. According to Greek legend, the nine Muses were the daughters of Zeus and Mnemosyne and were each responsible for a different area of the arts and sciences.

The noun can be traced back even further to the PIE root *men- which meant ‘to think, remember’, which is similar in meaning to the modern verb to muse, although this is purely by coincidence. It is from this muse that we got the words museum, originally a ‘shrine for the Muses’; mosaic, which was ‘work of the Muses’; and music, ‘pertaining to the Muses’.

The verb to muse, on the other hand, means ‘to reflect, to be absorbed in thought’. It came into English at roughly the same time as the noun, in the 14th century, and through the same source language: French. The French word, muser, meant ‘to ponder, to dream’ and also ‘to loiter, to waste time’ but the medieval Latin word it came from, musum, meant ‘snout’ and relates to the modern English word muzzle. So what’s the connection? It could either be because a person who is musing is standing with their nose in the air or because they are sniffing about, like a dog that’s lost the scent. Since both words arrived in the language in the same period, it’s also possible that the noun had an influence on the meaning of the verb.

Now, there are two important words that come from to muse: amuse and bemuse. The a- prefix in amuse means ‘to cause’, which, in the late 15th century, lead to ‘to cause to muse, to divert’ and the primary meaning was ‘to deceive, to cheat’ well until the 18th century. From this, it became ‘to divert from serious business’ and then later ‘to entertain’. It is actually bemuse which has retained more of the original meaning of amuse: the be- prefix can equally mean ‘to cause’ as well as ‘thoroughly’, so someone who is bemused is utterly confused.

Mug

How many meanings can you think of for the word mug? It’s not a word we think about often but when you do, you realise it’s a pretty versatile little thing. The Oxford Dictionaries website gives six definitions, four for nouns and two for verbs:

  1. A large cup, typically cylindrical with a handle and used without a saucer
  2. A person’s face
  3. A stupid or gullible person
  4. A hoodlum or thug
  5. Attack and rob (someone) in a public place
  6. Make faces, especially silly or exaggerated ones, before an audience or a camera

What makes the word even more interesting is that all these meanings, seemingly disparate, are actually all related.

The original sense of mug dates back to the 1400s but is now obsolete. It was used to refer to a dry measure, particularly of salt, much in the way cup is used in the US. Unfortunately, we can’t trace the origin any further back than that although there is some speculation that is could have a Scandinavian origin as there are similar words in Swedish, mugg, and Norwegian, mugge, or it could be related to Low German through  mukke.

By the 1560s, mug took on the first meaning we are familiar with, that of a drinking vessel. It’s a logical step from a measurement to a pot or jug but after that, the semantic shifts get more complex.

By the 1700s, mug had become a slang word for a person’s face, possibly because of the grotesque, cartoon-like faces that featured as decoration on mugs at that time.

Then, the word went on to become a slang word for ‘strike someone in the face’ in the boxing community, in the early 1800s.

From there, it was a simple widening of meaning to shift from ‘strike someone in the face’ to ‘attack’ more generally, in the 1840s, and instances of ‘attack to rob’ are found less than 20 years later. This later meaning was also possibly influenced by the use of mug in thieves slang to mean ‘dupe’ or ‘fool’ which had developed at about the same time.

The phrase mug shot, as in ‘photograph of a person for police records’, actually stems from the ‘face’ meaning of mug rather than the crime-related meaning.

 

Lousy

The word up for consideration today is one we all use regularly to mean ‘bad’ or ‘poor’ without ever really considering what it originally meant. But stop and think about it and it seems obvious. The word is lousy. Break it down and it clearly comes from louse.

Louse itself existed in Old English as lus which goes back further to Proto-Indo-European *lus-. It’s hardly surprising that louse should date back this far; in our modern, hyper-hygienic time, lice are rarely a problem but through most of our history the insects were a familiar pest.

The extension of the meaning of lousy from ‘infested with lice’ to ‘poor’ is pretty transparent and it happened in an impressively short period: between the middle and the end of the 14th century.

So in 1377, the former meaning was used and understood in William Langland’s poem Piers Plowman:

 With an hode on his hed a lousi hatte aboue.

(With a hood on his head, a lousy hat above.)

But Chaucer was able to use the latter meaning in Friar’s Tale, sometime after 1387:

 A lowsy jogelour kan deceyve thee.

(A lousy juggler can deceive you.)

Lousy developed another meaning in American English in the mid-19th century, that of ‘swarming with’ or ‘full of’. Oxford Dictionaries gives the example:

 ‘The town is lousy with tourists.’

Fortunately for us, we don’t have much use for the original sense of the word any more. The nice thing about it, though, is that the spelling and pronunciation have barely changed so the etymology is apparent and doesn’t involve lots of research and guesswork.

Google

One of the best things about the English language has to be its flexibility; the way we can be creative with words to find new meanings. A great example of this comes from something we all probably use every day without even thinking about it: Google.

We all know that Google is a trademark name for a popular internet search engine, which means it’s a proper noun. But that doesn’t stop us from using it as a verb:

‘He googled the woman he had met at the party.’

Google co-founder, Larry Page, even used the word as a verb as early as 1998:

‘Have fun and keep googling!’

The transitive verb to google was chosen as the most useful word of 2002 according to the American Dialect Society and it was added to both the Oxford English Dictionary and the Merriam-Webster Collegiate Dictionary in 2006.

I’ve also come across the variants googleable, ungoogleable and ungoogleability, referring to things which can or cannot be found using the Google search engine.

However, Google the company is not exactly thrilled by people using google the verb so often, since it is sometimes applied to search engines other than Google itself and using it so generically then threatens the trademark. Because of this, Google has been discouraging the use of the trademark as a generic verb. It has sent cease and desist letters to various people and a request to the general public stating that ‘you should please only use ‘Google’ when you’re actually referring to Google Inc. and our services’.

Google’s concern about to google might sound inconsequential but considering how language change has already wiped out the trademarks of Aspirin, Escalator, Heroin, Linoleum, Bubble Wrap, Dictaphone and Thermos among many more, Google has a right to be worried.

Still, trademark disputes are always complicated. Language is constantly in motion and new words, or neologisms, are always being coined. Sometimes these neologisms can come from existing words, like to google. Sometimes they can be created from thin air, like the source of the search engine’s name, that is, the googol.

The original word googol is a mathematical term for the number 10100. It was invented by a Milton Sirotta, nephew of mathematician Edward Kasner, in 1938 when Sirotta was at the ripe old age of nine. When asked to think of a name for a very large number, one followed by 100 zeroes, Sirotta replied with ‘googol’ and also suggested the word ‘googolplex’ for an even bigger number: 10 to the googol power.

So new words are always being made up and then being adapted and tweaked until they mean something different. Even if the folks at Google aren’t so happy with the way we use the term to google, it’s unavoidable: neologisers gonna neologisticate.

Daft

Today’s d word comes as a very belated response to a request made by Paul Thomas way back in 2013. The word up for consideration is daft, whose etymology is long, winding and, to be honest, pretty daft.

The word derives from the Old English gedaefte which originally meant ‘mild, gentle, becoming’. Tracing the origin back further, we find *gadaftjaz in Proto-Germanic which also gave rise to the related words daeftan, ‘to put in order, arrange’, and gedafen, ‘suitable’ in Old English. Going back even further, we find the root*dhabh- ‘to fit together’ in Proto-Indo-European.

Now of course, daft no longer means ‘mild, becoming’ or has any connotation of being suitably arranged, but it means something altogether different; the definition given by Oxford Dictionaries is ‘silly, foolish’. So the word has definitely become more negative, which, in linguistic terms, we call pejoration. But how has this happened?

By Middle English, around 1200, daffte meant ‘quiet and humble’. One hundred years later, it meant ‘dull’. In another 150 years, it meant ‘foolish’ and in the 1530s it even went one step further to become synonymous with ‘crazy’.

Daft first had the meaning of ‘stupid’ in reference to animals: a mild, humble animal was also considered simple. This meaning was eventually applied to people too. The progression could also have been influenced by analogy with another word, daffe, which then meant ‘half-wit’.

A surprising relative of daft is deft, which comes from the same Old English root gedaefte. The two words split sometime in the 15th century. While daft’s ‘gentle’ meaning went on to become ‘foolish’, deft developed the ‘gentle’ meaning into ‘skillful’ and ‘subtle’. So perhaps being called daft is not so bad after all.

Decimated English

You only have to dabble around in literature on language for a while to realize there’s an ongoing debate about ‘correct’ language use. For those passionate linguistic warriors it’s not even a debate but a battle. We’re talking about prescriptivism vs. descriptivism.

In short, prescriptivists believe that we are getting sloppier with our language, people don’t communicate correctly anymore, and, thus, English is going to the dogs. Meanwhile, descriptivists are not concerned with enforcing grammar rules and lamenting the glory days of the English language but just record language as it is and label the so-called deterioration of English as ‘language change’. Prescriptivists tend to be non-linguists; descriptivists tend to be linguists, or anyone who’s ever read a book on language change.

Personally, I find the argument generally uninteresting. What I do find interesting are those little articles prescriptivists write with titles like ’10 Words You Didn’t Know You Were Using Incorrectly’ or ’15 Words That Don’t Mean What You Think They Mean’. Not because I learn exactly how my understanding of English is ‘wrong’ but because of the interesting etymology that they reveal. For example, a word that came up recently was decimate. Most of us understand decimate with the first meaning cited in the OED:

verb  [with object]

  1. kill, destroy, or remove a large proportion of:

            ‘the inhabitants of the country had been decimated’

  •  drastically reduce the strength or effectiveness of (something):

             ‘public transport has been decimated’

But this article pointed out that the ‘real’ meaning isn’t to destroy totally or even largely but it means, very specifically, to destroy one tenth of something, which seems obvious when you look at it: decimate comes from the Latin decimare whose root is decem, meaning ‘ten’ like the decem in December. It entered English in the 15th century with the sense of a tithe, a tax of ten per cent of one’s annual income, but within a hundred years it came to mean ‘destroy a large portion of something’.

However, the original Roman practice of decimare was a punishment on mutinous legions or rebellious cities. Soldiers would be drawn out by lots of ten and one in every lot would be executed. Consequently, the group was decimated.

Although it would be easy to mourn the loss of such a delightfully precise meaning, we have gained a more general and widely-used meaning in the process. Language change does not leave a language ‘decimated’ but helps us to communicate as our society evolves, unless of course we want to keep those old Roman punishments too.