Language changes as time marches on, usage becomes abusage and vice versa with phrases like “the number of people” morphing into the grammatically incorrect “the amount of people”, as if someone pureed the crowd and weighed it rather than counting everyone present. It’s only pedantic grammazis, like me, who care. Although that said, if a change introduces ambiguity that’s not a good thing. Take a word like “quite”. A Brit might say your outfit is “quite nice”…they’d mean it wasn’t actually nice at all, but they were being polite and suggesting that it’s “okay”. Conversely, Americans would assume the Brit meant the outfit was “very, completely, totally, wholly nice”.
But, it’s not just grammar and verbal structure that change. What if I were to tell you that complete piles of words have totally changed in meaning over the years? For example, “nephew” originally meant grandson, a “hussy” was a housewife, “busking” was piracy and a “cloud” was at one time a rock. Ask for a “shampoo” back in the old days and you’d have got a massage, call someone a “punk” and you were implying that they sold sexual favours, as it originally meant prostitute.
In his latest book, Paul Anthony Jones traces the remarkable twists and turns of English words, verbal hanky-panky at its best. “Hanky-panky” originally meant sleight of hand!
The Accidental Dictionary out now from E and T books.