Word Nerd: The pure gold of synonym chains

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Although in the Middle Ages it is unlikely that gold fetched more than $1,500 an ounce, we still should pity the Middle Ages alchemists who futilely endeavoured to turn lead into gold. For all they had to do to perform such a metamorphosis was to create a simple series of synonym chains.

Let me explain how this black art can be completed.

To turn black into white, we follow the following steps: Black-dark-obscure-hidden-concealed-snug-pleasant-easy-simple-pure-White. Macbeth’s witches must have been on to something when they realized that fair is foul and foul is fair because in the same manner, ugly transmogrifies into beautiful: Ugly-offensive-insulting-insolent-proud-lordly-majestic-grand-gorgeous-Beautiful.

This legerdemain doesn’t appear as impressive when we reveal that the word pretty originally meant cunning and that came to mean beautiful through these set of stages: Pretty-cunning-clever-fine-nice-Beautiful. In fact, we can empirically “prove” the veracity of postmodern theory by showing how true is indeed false: True-just-fair-beautiful-pretty-artful-artificial-fake-False.

Many words have undergone changes in meaning that allow us to trace a similar process. The word “nice” meant “foolish” or “stupid” in the 14th century. It it has gone through the following progression in meaning: Nice-loose-mannered-foolish-wanton-lazy-effeminate-tender-delicate-shy-refined-fine-agreeable-kind-Pleasant.

The word “shrewd” originally meant “foolish” and went through this semantic transformation: Shrewd-depraved-wicked-naughty-abusive-calculating-artful-cunning-Wise. “Sad” went through this metamorphosis: Sad-satiated-settled-mature-serious-Unhappy. Also, “gay” went through a transformative process from its original sense of “happy” to today’s prevalent sense of “homosexual.”

It can even be explained how the same word can evolve contradictory meanings. With the word “fast,” we start off with a sense of “immovable” or “firm,” as in “standing fast.” From the sense of “standing fast” we developed the concept of “running fast” and hence the rapid sense of the word. Similarly “fine” originally denoted something “slender” and this led to a sense of “highly finished” that in turn led to a sense of “beautiful.” In situations where large growth is appreciated, this allows “fine” to be seen as “large,” notwithstanding that the word started its life as “slender.”

In his book The Broadcast Word (1935), Welsh linguist Arthur Lloyd James wrote: “A language is always changing: we are not looking at a lantern-slide, but at a moving picture.”

To demonstrate the turbulence in word meanings, I have concocted the following alphabetically arranged über short story titled The Admiral and the Juggler:

(Words in parentheses represent the original meaning of the word).

“The admiral (emir), while visiting Bedlam (Bethlehem) captivated (captured) a divan (council of state in Turkey) and entreated (treated) the fickle (treacherous) grub (short person) to a spectacle by an honest (comely) impudent (immodest) juggler (jester and musician). The juggler while but a knave (boy), was able to make lingerie (linen items) disappear and meat (food) appear out of thin air. He then had the emir’s niece (granddaughter) occult (hidden) as a prank (malicious trick) and the bereft admiral thinking his niece had been quelled (killed) was about to order a raid (military foray made on horseback) to make a sample (example) of the juggler’s perfidy, however the knave had no talent (inclination) to challenge the admiral and ended his uncouth (malicious) performance and had the virgin (unmarried girl) re-appear. The mollified admiral advised the lad in future to be witty (sensible) and the relieved performer, with a yawn, (open mouth) devoured some zest (orange peel).

Apparently, there is no word in English beginning with an “x” that has changed its meaning significantly. Even “xenophobic” Madame Marois.

This article is excerpted from Richler’s latest book How Happy Became Homosexual and Other Mysterious Semantic Shifts.


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