Welcome to the website woven for wordaholics, logolepts, and verbivores. Carnivores eat meat; herbivores eat plants and vegetables; verbivores devour words. If you are heels over head (as well as head over heels) in love with words, tarry here a while to graze or, perhaps, feast on the English language. Ours is the only language in which you drive in a parkway and park in a driveway and your nose can run and your feet can smell.

etymology

                                                                                                                                        

DEAR RICHARD LEDERER: An assignment by my senior high school English teacher gave me a life-long verbivore hobby — looking up etymologies of words. She asked us to turn in a couple, and mine were pretty and nice. In the past, these words had unflattering overtones. To me words became a living history of the past. My husband noticed me leafing through the dictionary so often looking up etymologies that he gave me a new dictionary for my birthday. -Daina Lawrence, Encinitas

A thousand thanks for your inspiring message, Daina. Some words are indeed born into low station and have come up in life. In Geoffrey Chaucer’s Middle English, nice, derived from the Latin nescius, “ignorant,” meant “foolish, senseless,” and in Old English pretty signified “cunning.” With the passing of time, certain words have acquired prestige (which used to mean “trickery”) and glamor (which began life as a synonym for “grammar”).

 To my exhibit of upwardly mobile words we can add knight, which once meant “a boy,” lord (loaf giver), governor (steersman), marshal (house servant), chamberlain (room attendant), constable (stable attendant), steward (sty warden), minister (servant) and pedagogue (slave).

In William Shakespeare’s day, politician was a sinister word implying scheming, Machiavellian trickery. Although some would argue that the meaning of politician really hasn’t changed very much, these words have come up in life.

For the most part, however, the reputations of words, like those of people, are quite fragile and subject to debasement.

In the year 1666, a great fire swept through London and destroyed more than half the city, including three quarters of St. Paul’s Cathedral. Sir Christopher Wren, the original designer of St. Paul’s and perhaps the finest architect of all time, was commissioned to rebuild the great edifice. He began in 1675 and finished in 1710, a remarkably short period for such a task.

When the great project was completed, Queen Anne, the reigning monarch, visited the Cathedral, gazed upon the magnificent edifice and turned to the architect. “Mr. Wren,” she pronounced. “This building is awful, artificial and amusing.”

Sir Christopher, so the story goes, was delighted with the royal compliment, because in those days, almost three and a half centuries ago, awful meant “full of awe, awe-inspiring,” artificial meant “artistic” and amusing, from the muses, meant “amazing.”

Awful, artificial and amusing are sparkling examples of three words whose reputations have slid downhill over the years                                                                                                                                          

An Englishman was served a delicious meal in an American household. Afterward, he complimented his hostess with “You are the homeliest woman I have ever met!” This was high praise in British English, in which homely means “homelike, good around the home.” But because it was perceived that women who stayed home were generally unattractive, the word has taken on negative associations in American English. A similar fate has befallen spinster, which, as its roots indicate, meant simply “a women who spins.”

The Greeks used idiotes, from the root idios, “private,” to designate those who did not hold public office. Because such people possessed no special skill or status, the word gradually fell into disrepute.

Stink and stench were formerly neutral in meaning and referred to any smell, as did reek, which once had the innocuous meaning of “to smoke, emanate.” Shakespeare wrote his great sonnet sequence just at the time that reek was beginning to degrade and exploited the double meaning in his whimsical Sonnet 130:

      I have seen roses damasked, red and white,

      But no such roses see I her on her cheeks.

      But in some perfume there is more delight

      Than in the breath that from my mistress reeks.

Do you find my treatment of changing word meanings to be vulgar, villainous, boorish, notorious, egregious, smug or silly? Every one of these adjectives once possessed a complimentary or neutral meaning during the Middle Ages: vulgar, boorish and villainous: “relating to the common people or peasantry”; notorious and egregious: “well known, outstanding; smug: “neat, trim”; silly: “good, blessed, innocent.”

Is there a human weakness revealed in this tendency to stain the meanings of words? Would we rather be critical than complimentary? Human nature being what it is, we are prone to believe the worst about people, and this cynicism is reflected in the fact that word meanings are much more likely to degrade than to upgrade.

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