On Words and Meanings

It’s amazing where words come from and how they change meanings over time.  The History of English brings a great, multi-part article on how new words are added to the English language.

I particularly enjoyed the section on changes in word meanings over time, some even have come to mean the opposite of their original meanings:

Some words came to mean almost the complete opposite of their original meanings. For instance, counterfeit used to mean a legitimate copy; brave once implied cowardice; crafty was originally a term of praise; cute used to mean bow-legged; enthusiasm and zeal were both once disparaging words; manufacture originally meant to make by hand; awful meant deserving of awe; egregious originally connoted eminent or admirable; artificial was a positive description meaning full of skilful artifice; etc.

I’d love to get more on the ‘why’ behind the changes.  Some are obvious, like awful but others seem to defy logic like counterfeit.

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On Sarcasm

Sarcasm is an interesting beast. Saying one thing while meaning the exact opposite requires that both the speaker and the listener have not only an understanding of the words and phrases but also an understanding that the speaker means the opposite. Confused yet?

Honestly, it’s a miracle that any of us can communicate at all.

Sarcasm so saturates 21st-century America that according to one study of a database of telephone conversations, 23 percent of the time that the phrase “yeah, right” was used, it was uttered sarcastically. Entire phrases have almost lost their literal meanings because they are so frequently said with a sneer. “Big deal,” for example. When’s the last time someone said that to you and meant it sincerely? “My heart bleeds for you” almost always equals “Tell it to someone who cares,” and “Aren’t you special” means you aren’t.

Great article. No really, I mean that.

From Smithsonian