By Mark Sundaram
Welcome to the Endless Knot. Today, along with a number of other YouTubers, we’re looking at evolution, and specifically here how word meanings evolve, oh, and along the way, rolling out a little history of books!
Why do words evolve? It’s well known that language changes over time. But why and how do the meanings of words change? Is there any pattern or system? Basically, meanings adapt to suit the needs of the users of a language, with some disappearing when they are not useful and others spreading quickly because they fit into new environments.The question of why is particularly complicated, but generally there can be said to be a variety of psychological and sociocultural reasons for this kind of change, such as the need for taboo replacement and euphemism like how “to pass away” gained the figurative sense of “to die” instead of referring to any literal movement. As well, real world changes can trigger semantic change. So for instance technological change, which can render an old word obsolete, or can require the existence of a new word for a new technology, while sometimes old words are repurposed for new concepts. Think for instance of the word “dial” which comes ultimately from Latin dies meaning “day”, and therefore originally referred to a sundial or other similar clock faces. When other physically similar devices came along, like compasses, they too could be referred to as dials, and later still when rotary knobs and controls such as on a rotary telephone came along, they too became dials. Now when we push buttons or touch numbers on a smartphone, we still call it dialling, even though there’s nothing rotary about it, and certainly nothing to do with the length of a day. Similarly, in the days of movable type printing, the word font referred to a complete set of letters in the same typeface, so called because they were all cast together out of metal — think foundry. Now with computer word processing, font refers to the typeface itself. Sometimes changes can seem random, but there are some systematic patterns we can see in how words change their meaning.
The first axis of change we can see is narrowing vs widening. Examples of narrowing, also called specialization, include: meat, which in Old English was a general word for ‘food’ before its sense narrowed to specifically the flesh of animals; deer, which originally meant any wild animal before becoming restricted to the specific species we mean today; starve, which in Old English meant ‘to die’ but now means more narrowly ‘to die by lack of food’; and girl, which could originally refer to a child of any gender. The opposite process, widening or generalization, broadens or extends the sense of a word, as in bird which as Old English bridd meant specifically “young bird”, with the word fugol (fowl in Modern English) being the more general word for ‘bird’, and whereas bird widened in its meaning to refer to any bird, fowl narrowed its meaning to refer specifically to barnyard birds such as chickens, ducks, and geese. A similar example is holiday, which originally mean a holy day, before its meaning extended to any time off. And a special case of widening is genericization in which a trademark name becomes a general term for the category, such as kleenex (in some dialects), or as I covered in a previous video, linoleum.
The next axis of change is pejoration and amelioration, whether a word becomes more negative or more positive in sense. So for instance cunning originally meant ‘learned’ coming from the Old English verb cunnan meaning ‘to know’. The negative sense of ‘skillfully deceitful’ doesn’t crop up until much later. An interesting case are the words silly and nice. Silly originally meant ‘blessed’ or ‘happy’, coming from an old Germanic root meaning ‘luck, happiness’, but the sense went through a series of changes from ‘blessed’ to ‘pious’ to ‘innocent, harmless’ to ‘pitiable’ to ‘feeble’ to ‘feeble in mind’ or as we think of it today ‘foolish’. Nice on the other hand, coming ultimately from Latin nescire ‘to not know or be ignorant’, went therefore from meaning ‘ignorant’ through such senses as ‘foolish’, ‘shy’, ‘fastidious’, ‘dainty or delicate’, ‘refined’, and ultimately ‘pleasant, agreeable, or kind’, thus going from a distinctly negative sense to a distinctly positive one. So be careful who you call nice or silly!
Similar to this type of semantic shift is the degeneration and elevation axis. The Old English words cnafa and cniht both meant ‘boy’, but the former was demoted to become knave and the latter was elevated to become knight.
Weakening and strengthening of semantic meaning is another axis found, though weakening is by far the more common. Something that’s awesome, fantastic, and fabulous, isn’t usually characterized by literal awe, fantasy, or fable, and something that’s terrible or horrible doesn’t usually invoke actual terror and horror. You can sort of think of them as hyperbole or exaggeration that becomes banal. One example of the opposite might be kill, which seems to have originally meant simply ‘to strike, hit’ but later was strengthened to mean ‘put to death’.
Two other semantic shifts worth mentioning are figurative ones, metaphor and metonymy. In metaphor something, usually concrete, gains a more abstract figurative meaning. Thus the older sense of field is an open grassy area, but the word gained a metaphorical meaning when used in the sense of say the “field of linguistics”. And the base sense of grasp is to physically hold something with your hand, but you can now also “grasp” the concept of semantic shift. And while broadcast originally meant ‘to scatter seeds’ now we can say that this lesson on semantic shift is being broadcast on YouTube. Metonymy on the other hand is a semantic shift that happens when two things are closely associated with each other. So for instance bead originally meant prayer, coming from a root that also gives us the word bid. But because of the practise of the rosary or prayer beads, the sense transferred over from the prayers themselves to the little decorative balls on a string or chain that were used to count the prayers. An interesting case of metonymy can be seen with the words cheek and jaw. Cheek in Old English meant ‘jaw, jawbone’ and is probably related to the verb chew, but by metonymy shifted its meaning to the closely associated fleshy part above the jaw. The word jaw, on the other hand, probably comes from the French word joue meaning ‘cheek’. So originally jaw meant cheek and cheek meant jaw!
So that’s how the meaning of words evolve, and funnily enough the word evolution itself is a good example of this. You see Charles Darwin didn’t coin the word — it’s been around since classical Latin and has had many different meanings in English over the years. Darwin wasn’t even the first to use it to refer to the process of biological change through natural selection which he famously expounded on in his Origin of Species. As it turns out, Darwin preferred the term “descent with modification” and used the word evolution only once in his writings. It was Darwin’s pal, geologist Charles Lyell, who was the first to apply the word evolution to this concept, and as I said, the word had already been around for a while, making this an example of re-purposing an older word for a new idea. In fact this wasn’t even the first biological use of the word, it had previously been used to refer to the idea of the development to maturity of an individual organism over its life cycle, and before that to all manner of developing processes, including, in the 17th century, the semantic development of a word! This arose from a metaphorical extension of the Latin word evolutio, which meant ‘unrolling’, initially with the literal sense of the unrolling of a scroll, but more commonly with the metaphorical sense of reading through a book, which at the time would have been written as a scroll.
Aside from clay tablets, scrolls were one of the first types of book technology for extended writing (not just brief inscriptions). Not that they would have called them scrolls at that time. For instance, the Latin for scroll is volumen which comes from the Latin verb volvere meaning “to turn around, roll”, which makes sense when you think about a scroll. Through the process of broadening the term volume now refers to any type of book, not just scrolls. The word scroll is not so straight forward. Though it sounds like roll, it’s actually not etymologically related, though its modern form with the l-sound on the end probably does come from roll. Scroll comes from French escroe, from which we also get the legal term escrow because it was a legal document originally written on a scroll. The French word, which comes from a root that means “to cut” and also gives us shred and shear, originally meant a “cut piece or strip” and then through that process of narrowing I mentioned, a strip of parchment, and finally a rolled up strip of parchment. The next big advance in book technology is what was called in Latin the codex, what we would think of as a book with pages bound together. The word codex (plural codices) comes from caudex, meaning “tree trunk”, by the process of metonymy, because the codex technology evolved from wooden writing tablets which had a wax covering that you’d scratch the writing into — several such tablets could be hinged together, thus leading to the form of the codex or book. The Germanic derived word book has a similar tree origin as it’s related to the word beech as in beech tree, so Germanic books were also originally wooden tablets.
The ancient Greek word for book, by the way, was biblion, from which we get the words bibliography and the Bible, literally “the books”. Of course the word biblion originally referred to scrolls, not the codex, as that came about later in Roman times. Biblion is a toponym, that is a word that comes from a place name, in this case the ancient Phoenician city of Byblos, which exported papyrus. Which raises the point that ancient scrolls and early codices weren’t made from paper. Papyrus is made from layering strips of the pith from the stem of the papyrus plant, a kind of sedge or reed. Our modern word paper comes from papyrus, even though it’s made from pulp from plants like linen and hemp and later wood pulp. Paper technology was invented in China and was only imported into medieval Europe in the 11th century. But there was another writing material commonly used in medieval Europe, the skin of animals such as sheep or calves, known as parchment or vellum. The word parchment is also a toponym, from the ancient city of Pergamon, where the technology was developed as an alternative to papyrus. The word vellum, on the other hand is related to veal, the meat of a calf or young cow, from a Proto-Indo-European root meaning year, thus the idea of a year-old calf.
Getting back to the Romans, they had another word for book, in the general sense of a volume or scroll, Latin liber, from which we get the word library. Latin liber could also mean bark and comes from a Proto-Indo-European root which means “to peel or break off”, which also gives us through the Germanic branch the word leaf. Speaking of leaves, we still sometimes use theword leaves to refer to pages in a book, and there’s another leafy word, folio, which has a place in this story of the history of book technology. A folio, from Latin folium meaning literally ‘leaf’ but often meaning ‘page’, is what you get if you take the skin of one sheep and trim off all the curvy bits to make a codex. If you fold it in half and bind it together with others you get what’s called a folio sized book, very large, a size that today we might associate with a large atlas. If you fold that sheep skin in half twice, you get a smaller book with four pages per sheep skin, which is called a quarto—what what we would now think of as a large dictionary sized book. Fold again and you’d produce an octavo which is the size of a modern hardcover book. Fold again and you get an even smaller book, the size of a modern paperback. One more fold and you get something the size of a small notepad, or a smartphone. And these comparisons are no coincidence. When books started to be made out of paper rather than parchment, they tended to keep the same sizes as had been created by the properties of the sheepskin, cause that’s what everyone was used to. And even today, e-books are designed to be about the same size as the books we’re used to. So essentially your Kindle is the size of a sheep! Only now it’s come full circle, with e-readers that we can “scroll” through—another old word repurposed for new technology, in the ever-evolving history of the book, and language itself, adapting to new circumstances.
So, that’s how word meanings evolve—but what about other things such as facial expressions, or homosexuality, or the selfie? Well, a few other YouTubers have uploaded videos exploring these kinds of evolutions, and more — so check out the playlist linked at the end of this video. Thanks for watching! If you’ve enjoyed these etymological explorations and cultural connections, please subscribe to this channel or share it; you can also sign up for email notifications of new videos in the description below. And check out our Patreon page, where you can make a contribution to help me make more videos. Leave a comment or question, or tweet @Alliterative; you can also read more of my thoughts on my blog at alliterative.net.