Meanings of Words

Just yesterday my husband was decrying the theft/adoption of specific words with specific meanings to mean other things by certain groups of people. He spoke of three which have lost the meaning they had when we were young, sometimes leaving no word to replace them, and become something else. I am not going to say what those are. Would you care to guess?

But today, I was searching for the origin of an expression, and while I haven’t yet found it, I found something else quite fascinating.

Popular modern usage will often rob common words, like “nice,” “quaint,” or “silly,” of all flavour of their origin, as if it were of no moment to remember that these three words, at the outset of their history, bore the older senses of “ignorant,” “noted,” and “blessed.” It may be granted that any attempt to return to these older senses, regardless of later implications, is stark pedantry; but a delicate writer will play shyly with the primitive significance in passing, approaching it and circling it, taking it as a point of reference or departure. The early faith of Christianity, its beautiful cult of childhood, and its appeal to unlearned simplicity, have left their mark on the meaning of “silly” … And if there is a later silliness, altogether unblest, the skilful artificer of words, while accepting this last extension, will show himself conscious of his paradox. So also he will shun the grossness that employs the epithet “quaint” to put upon subtlety and the devices of a studied workmanship an imputation of eccentricity; or, if he falls in with the populace in this regard, he will be careful to justify his innuendo. The slipshod use of “nice” to connote any sort of pleasurable emotion he will take care, in his writings at least, utterly to abhor. From the daintiness of elegance to the arrogant disgust of folly the word carries meanings numerous and diverse enough; it must not be cruelly burdened with all the laudatory occasions of an undiscriminating egotism.

Thus have people aware of the meanings of words always deplored the change to those meanings. I have read extensively in English literature and yet I did not know those words’ original (or only earlier) meaning.

But, according to Walter Raleigh, that is what they originally meant. I assume this is Sir Walter Raleigh who brought these words of wisdom to us, via World Wide School’s library.