Word of the Week: Waste

By Taylor Soule
Today, the phrase, “I was soooo wasted!” typically precedes a crazy story defined by blackmail-worthy choices, blurry selfies and the obligatory, “Wait, I did what?” According to the Oxford English Dictionary, people have been “getting wasted” since the idiom entered the English language in 1511. Long before “wasted” became synonymous with drunken shenanigans, though, the word meant “injury” — a sharp diversion from that funny story from last Friday night.

The Italians took “waste” pretty seriously, as the root word, “guasto,” meant “ravage, injury, damage.” On its journey to the English language, the Portuguese, Spanish, Latin and French languages all maintained the word’s somber meaning.

When “waste” entered English around 1200, it stayed sober for 300-some years. But 1511 must have been one hell of a year, as the 16th-century version of “getting wasted” surfaced, robbing the word of some of its solemn roots.

The harsh reality of waste lingers today, as Americans expend countless resources — food, water and more. It may have been OK to have a little too much fun in 1511, but it’s 2014, and the party is over.

May 6: Busy

By Taylor Soule
Today, we equate busyness with sophistication and superiority. The more colors on the calendar, the more, “Can’t talk, gotta run,” moments, the more dinners in the car instead of at the table, the better. When the word “busy” entered the English language, though, it didn’t refer to sophistication — or even people. The old German root of busy, — “bisen,” meant “to run around wildly, especially of cattle,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

As it wandered through German and Dutch en route to the English language, “busy” traded its animalistic definition for a more refined meaning. “Busy,” meaning “constantly or habitually occupied; always active or employed,” emerged in Chaucer’s “Knight’s Tale” in 1385: “The bisy larke, messager of daye [sic].” By 1720, the word “busy” exceeded daytime to include all time. And that “go, go, go” attitude became a goal — even for children. In Ian Watts’ 1720 compilation, “Divine and moral songs for children”, busyness and success are practically synonymous: “How doth the little busy bee Improve ea=ch shining hour!”

Besides providing a glimpse into the sometimes-surprising origin of the English language, the dictionary also offers us a warning sign. Maybe our color-coding, multitasking society isn’t quite as cultured as we’d like to think. Maybe, we’re merely a herd of cows “running around wildly,” missing opportunities to connect and reflect along the way.

April 30: Property

By Taylor Soule
For American Indians, land is wild, untamed and holy. The government has other thoughts — land is something to conquer, utilize and cultivate. Oddly enough, the word “property” comes from the French word “propre,” meaning “neatness.” Perhaps the idea of organization lent itself to ownership. The French word initially referred to “decent dress and manners” in 1538, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, but by 1719, it was defined as land and ultimately, nature: “a piece of land under one ownership.”

American Indians saw their holy land appropriated not only by European settlers but also by the English language. Though the physical seizure of American Indian sacred sites is telling, the linguistic seizure is perhaps even more so. The English language suddenly becomes more than a means of communication; it becomes a weapon.

April 23: Justice

By Taylor Soule
A call for “justice” typically indicates something grave and unlawful. Well before “We want justice!” became a slogan for the wronged, it was a slogan for the thirsty. The 11th-century Latin word “iustitia” — an ancestor of “justice” — refers not to righting a wrong, but to, well, a tall one, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, justice was defined as a: “vessel containing a lawful amount of ale or wine, flagon.”

By the 12th century, the word decided to grow up. It abandoned that party past for a more serious, modern definition: “administration of law or equality.” The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle wrote in 1160, “He dide god iustise and makede pais [sic].”

Though the word “justice” struts around the English language demanding social reform, it wasn’t always so solemn and determined. And if the word “justice” can kick back with a tall one from time to time, I think we all can, too.

April 16: Hero

By Taylor Soule
If you put it on the Internet, it’s there forever. A modern band of digital superheroes — a.k.a. user interface designers — make it simple for us to navigate the vast realm of the Internet. Though the World Wide Web didn’t emerge until the late-20th century, those Internet superheroes date back, oddly enough, to the 16th century.

The word “hero,” meaning “one regarded as semi-divine and immortal,” broke into the English language in 1534 in W. Marshall’s A Playne and Godly Exposition or Declaration of the Commune Crede, according to the Oxford English Dictionary: “Of goddes & women & of goddesses & men were gendred & broughtforth [sic] heroes.” By 1578, the definition expanded to include mortal beings: “a man (or occas. a woman) generally admired or acclaimed for great qualities or achievements in any field.”

While the modern definition of “hero” is typically used to describe the mortal, the Internet is bringing immortality back. After all, it’s the user interface designers we have to thank for our efficient and eternal access to the “Gangnam Style” video.

April 8: Miniature

By Taylor Soule
“Taking pics with my new miniature miniature!” With your, um, what?

While the word “miniature,” meaning “tiny,” followed a pretty typical path from Latin to the English language, it adopted an unexpected definition in the mid-20th century: “camera.” According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the British Journal of Photography announced the debut of newer, smaller cameras in 1952: “Several miniature miniatures have already appeared on the market.” Unsurprisingly, “miniature miniature” didn’t make for clear, effective marketing. By 1958, the definition earned “rare” status in the English language.

But I think it deserves a new lease on life (and language). With the modern cellphone camera dwarfing even the tiniest miniatures of the 1950s, the rare definition is now more applicable than ever. Besides, even the #selfie — duck face, peace sign and all — seems hip when you say it was captured with a miniature miniature.

For another take on the meaning of “miniature,” delve into the world of mini cattle.

April 1: Millennial

By Taylor Soule
The word “Millennial” hardly prompts a celebration. We’re that entitled, tech-addicted, lazy generation, after all.

However, “celebration” and “Millennial” were once interchangeable. When the Westminster Gazette introduced the commemorative meaning of “millennial” in 1896, it meant the celebration of Hungary’s anniversary, according to the Oxford Dictionary.

Well before “Millennial” became a celebration and eventually, a generation, it meant a period of 1,000 years. That meaning entered the English language from Latin in 1210.

From marking time to celebrating to defining an entire generation, “Millennial” has had quite a life — and definitely not a lazy one.

And on behalf of the Millennial generation, we would like to wish the word a happy (early) 805th birthday by returning to that celebratory meaning. Thanks, “Millennial,” for determining time and inviting us to party.

March 25: Screwed

By Taylor Soule
You can screw around. You can screw up, screw off or put the screws on someone. You can also just screw him or her; or you can get totally screwed.

But you couldn’t do any of that before Shakespeare. Like he did with so many other words, he introduced “screw” into the English language. In 1616 in Cymbeline, he wrote, “Why should I write this downe, thats riueted, Screw’d to my memorie.” Before that, the noun “screw,” meaning “to attach with a screw or screws,” was a linguistic nomad, traveling through multiple cultures and languages. The word had roots in Danish, Swedish, Icelandic, German and Dutch.

It only took roughly 100 years for someone to make screw naughty, though. The verb “screwed” got its more libidinous meaning in 1725 when “to screw,” meaning to “copulate with a woman,” entered informal English in the New Canting Dictionary.

But to be totally screwed — well, it would take another 200 years for the English language to make the link between a metal fastener and being completely f—-d. “Screwed” entered English slang in the 1930s, with its first documented appearance in The Four of Hearts, a 1938 novel by Ellery Queen. That reference read, “For gossakes!’ yelled Lew, jumping up. ‘That screws everything!’” according to the Oxford English Dictionary. From that moment on, we were screwing anything and everything, though hopefully all that screwing around didn’t get us totally screwed.

For another perspective on the meaning of “screwed” in modern culture, check out a Think Mag writer’s take on the screwed Millennial generation.

Photo courtesy of Greeblie


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