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Three Simple Words with Interesting History

May 11, 2013
English: A multi-volume Latin dictionary (Egid...

Man, I bet you could find some great cuss words in these old dictionaries. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I’ve always loved the dictionary, even if I’ve loved it for the wrong reasons.  When I was a kid, I liked to look up dirty words and laugh at the definitions.  As I got older, I appreciated the giant unabridged dictionary at the back of the library.  It was always attached to a table or podium so it wouldn’t get stolen (who’d steal a dictionary?) or dropped (yeah, I could see that happening, and a kid gets squashed, and a parent sues). 

Anyway, the guy who runs the Oxford English Dictionary (the formal position is called Chief Editor) is retiring after 37 years at OED and about 20 as Chief Editor.  37 years is a long time at any one place. 20 is a lot at any one position, so I hope they at least get him a big thesaurus as a parting gift.  

In the BBC article reporting this retirement, the retiring Chief Editor chose a few words as examples of what he does, which is to figure out word history.  The selected words were pom, Etaoin shrdlu, and New Model Army

Even though the history behind these terms/phrases may be interesting, I was turned off by my lack of familiarity with them.  How can I be interested in these words if I never use them?  That’s not a complaint against the Chief editor.  That’s simply my reaction. 

As an American, I probably wasn’t the author’s intended audience anyway, but these examples probably would not inspire people NOT interested in the dictionary to become interested in the dictionary. 

To help out, I’ve chosen three simple words, each with an interesting history.  Despite my past fascination with profanity and vulgar words, I’ve chosen three common words that aren’t dirty, profane, or vulgar.  Since I’m American, I’m using a Merriam-Webster Intermediate Dictionary, an abridged version that my kids use at school and at home.

1.  Nice- 

Short Version: Nice used to mean “stupid.”

Nice comes from the Latin word “nescius” which means (or meant) “ignorant.”  In the 15th century, the English word nice meant “stupid.”  By the 16th century, the meaning of nice had changed a bit to “finicky.”  Then by the 19th century, nice had come to mean “pleasant” or “agreeable” which is still one of nice’s most common meanings.

 2.  Snob- 

Short Version: Snob used to mean “a guy who made shoes.” 

Snob used to be an English dialect word for cobbler (a person who makes or repairs shoes).  Snob then came to mean “a common person” since cobblers were thought of as common or lower class.  Then snob became “a lower class person who pretended to be upper class or imitated the mannerisms of noble people” (kind of like how I used to pretend to have read literature that I really hadn’t). Now snob is “a person who looks down on others.” 

3.  Travel-

Short Version- Travel used to mean “to torture” (kind of).

Travel starts from the Latin (of course) word tripaliare which meant “to torture.”   The French word travailler also meant “to torture” but also meant “to work really hard”.  The Middle English word travaile meant “to work hard” but also “to travel” (maybe because travelling was so difficult… and this was BEFORE airline screening).  Travailen eventually split into two different words, travail for “hard work” and travel for “to go on a trip.”


See how easy that was?  I spent five minutes with a dictionary and learned a bunch of word history.  Maybe next week I’ll spend five minutes with a thesaurus.

From → Etymology

  1. I’m a nice snob that loves to travel.

  2. I thought Thesauruses were extinct… 🙂

  3. I admit to being a dictionary lover. I own 2 unabridged dictionaries, each weighing many pounds. In middle school, I was guilty of looking up all the dirty words, but, there are only so many vulgar words that that particular activity runs out of steam quickly.

    Now I just like to open up the dictionary to random pages, and learn about various words, their origins, and meanings.

    I really, really, really, want to own the ultimate in dictionary porn: The Oxford Dictionary of the English Language — a 20 volume set, costing over a grand, consisting of 22,000 pages, where one can read all 464 definitions of the word ‘set’ (the word with the most definitions), and takes up 25 of the 22,000 pages.

    Word porn. Seriously.

    • Word porn…Haha! I wrote a post a few months ago about the history of the word “pornography,” and the root “porne” meant prostitute. So if you’re buying all those dictionaries, maybe the Oxford folk could be called “word prostitutes” because they’re selling words, and we’d be “word johns” because we’re buying… Yeah, maybe I took this too far.

      • “Word johns”… is that some kind of wisecrack because my name is John…?


        I guess since Oxford sells words, you’re right… somthing to ponder, at least….

  4. I LOVE etymology! It’s weird to see how such “ordinary” words evolved. There’s a surprising amount of meaning in them…

  5. So ‘stupid’ is the new ‘agreeable’ .. 😀 Nice has come a long way ! 🙂

    • “Nice” has come a long way, and “travel” has come full circle (depending on which airport you have to sit in and which airline you’re taking).

  6. msperfectpatty permalink

    I love it!

  7. I do love me some word history. 🙂 I hadn’t heard the second one before. Interesting how word meanings can change so radically.

    • I enjoy word history too, but I don’t remember studying it in school. We did a lot of definition copying. I wonder if school dictionaries back in the 1970s and 80s had word history in them.

  8. This was fun. My first time on your site and it looked organized and stuffy. But, since the post you like on my site was humorous I hung in there. I got a LOL about giving the Top Old Man at OED a thesaurus. What kind of message does that give — “You have been striving for precision and exactness, when reality is multifarious. Damn. Is multifarious a word? Who cares!

    Thanks for the laugh

    • Thank YOU! I hope the OED guy would appreciate the thesaurus. When I give a gift, I try to find something that the other person might not have. I’m going to have to look up “multifarious” now.

      • Multifarious = Person living with way too many weaslelike mammals used to hunt rats and rabbits

  9. Great facts, especially the ‘travel’ bit of trivia!

  10. As a Francophile I find it interesting that their word that now means “to work” is part of the evolution of one of our words that many think of as an opposite.

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