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Interesting Etymologies 12 : Changing meaning

Updated: Mar 27, 2022

"Hello again Word Lovers!"

"Are you an idiot, by any chance? Are you naughty or are you nice? Or are you silly?" This episode starts in a rather aggressive tone as Charly sets out to explore the original meanings of some rather negative words.

Idiot : In the time of ancient Greece, an idiot was someone who was concerned with private ideas. "idios" meant private or one's own. In Latin the word originally meant "ordinary person" or "layman" but by late Latin the word had become "uneducated or ignorant person" (Ed - Which maybe betrays some of the more superior attitudes of the elites of Roman society toward the common man does it not?)

Naughty : Has its roots in Proto-Indo-European "ne" meaning "not" and "wiht" meaning "creature". Some one who has naught or nothing is often liable to be a "bad" person, they might steal or society might see poor people as lacking in moral fibre.

Nice : the opposite of nice in modern use comes from "nescius" in Latin meaning "ignorant", itself from nescire (to not know) and also provides the root for the word "science". Somehow this mutated to "being able to discriminate", a nice distinction is something you must seek, a distinction that is not obvious. This mutated to someone who can distinguish things, likes the finer things, the "nicer" things.

Silly : The word aelig in old English meaning "blessed" or "touched by God" from Germanic "salig" meaning "extremely overjoyed". This "touched by God" theme developed to mean a pious or devout person, a "sylyman" was a man of God. Perhaps the aspect of innocence in the personality of monks or isolated people of faith added to the definition leading to the stupid plus innocent combination we know today.

Cloud: Was a mountain so cloud literally means "mountains in the sky"

Awful: Was something which inspired awe

Dinner : Apparently derives from breakfast

Surly : Believed to be a development from adapting the idea of "sir" to be a greeting of respect to a show of disdain.

Travel : Derives from Travail to mean hard work or labour. This actually comes from Trepalium in Latin which was a three staked instrument of torture. (Ed - Sounds like riding a bus in the morning to be honest)

Explore the full Interesting Etymologies series archive here


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