Wednesday, 17 July 2013

All Things 'Nice'

On Monday I blogged about how even a common word can have an interesting history, and I looked at ‘okay’ as an example. Today I’m going to continue that theme by looking at another word that is used a lot, which, as with ‘okay’, may result in it being labelled bland and overused. That word is ‘nice’.

‘Nice’ entered English in the early fourteenth century and started out as a negative word, deriving from the Latin nescius meaning ‘ignorant’ and for well over a century was used as a word to describe stupid, ignorant or foolish people, or people who were believed to present those characteristics. By the beginning of the 1300s however, ‘nice’ began to refer more widely to conduct, people, or clothing that were deemed lavish or luxurious. A century later at the start of the 1400s, it had developed a more neutral manner, and was used to describe someone who was finely dressed, shy and introvert, as well as something that was precise. And by the 1500s, ‘nice’ was used to describe refined, dignified characteristics, and politeness, not just of individuals but of society as a whole.
Fast-forward to the present day, ‘nice’ has built up a reputation as being a lazy word, and perhaps overused, as with ‘basically’, ‘like’, ‘lovely’, and ‘amazing’. School children are told not to use ‘nice’ if they want to achieve higher marks, and should opt to use an adjective which is more descriptive and shows a greater knowledge of words.

In summary, common words have an intriguing history, and as with ‘nice’, the history may be more intriguing than the word itself today.

Monday, 15 July 2013

Is ‘Ok’ really ‘Okay’?

Martin Van Buren (1782 - 1862)
‘Okay’, often shortened to ‘ok’, is one of the most frequently used words in the English language. Many of us will use it at least once a day. Even the commonest of words have a history, and ‘okay’ is no exception.

Historically, ‘okay’ began as a deliberate misspelling of something else. For example, whereas a shop sign may read ‘betta value’, meaning ‘better value’, ‘okay’ began as a deliberate misspelling for ‘all correct’ in the nineteenth century, and was changed to ‘oll korrect’. This gained vast publicity when it was adopted by the political campaigner and the eighth president of America, Martin Van Buren, for his 1840 re-election bid, with a nod to his nickname Old Kinderhook (Kinderhook being a village in New York state where he was born).  Despite Van Buren losing his bid, the expression stuck. It is believed that Greek immigrants who arrived in America were known as ‘okay-boys’ because they quickly picked up American idiolects.

Like many words in English, ‘okay’ has had many forms. It was first spelt ‘okeh’, and it was in 1929 that the current spelling with the ‘a’ appeared. The noun emerged in 1841, and the verb in 1888.
Today, however, because of the familiarity of ‘okay’, it has become rather bland and emotionless. If someone asked us about their new hairstyle, and we replied ‘it’s okay’, we may be met with a less than thankful response. As a result of this, many attempts have been made to rejuvenate ‘okay’ through the creation derivatives. For example, ‘okey doke’ and ‘okilly dokilly’ to name but two – the latter characterised by Ned Flanders in The Simpsons. In fact, ‘okey doke’ was first recorded in student slang back in 1932.

So it seems that ‘okay’ is no longer okay. Whereas its roots are in fierce political campaigning, it is now a word which may be regarded as rather passionless and stale - just one example of how words change as they meander through time.

Friday, 12 July 2013

‘Fifteen, love’ and running from ‘Pillar to Post’

If you’re a keen tennis player or spectator, I’m sure you’ll agree that we have just had a thrilling and unforgettable fortnight of tennis at Wimbledon, resulting in the first British male player to win the championships since 1936, in the form of Andy Murray of course. But when you were watching the matches, did you ever link the game with the idiom ‘pillar to post’?

That idiom originates from tennis. In the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, tennis was a game played exclusively among the Aristocracies. A large area was needed to play the game, and as a result, courts were usually placed on roofs. The net was attached to a post at the side of the court that was then tied to a pillar that supported the stands on the other side of the court. And as is the case now, the idea was to get the opposing player to run rather raggedly in the hope it would mean you’d have a better chance of winning the rally. This is where the idiom to run from ‘pillar to post’ comes from.
And on a side note, I was asked a few weeks ago why is ‘love’ used to denote nil or zero points. That simply goes back to when tennis was played for love, rather than for any financial or personal reward.

So two interesting tennis-based etymologies.

Wednesday, 10 July 2013

Twitter's Influence on Language - 'Hashtag' and 'Hate-watching'

Technology and popular websites are a potent force in influencing our ever-shifting language. One such website is Twitter – a site that was created in the late noughties but by March 2011 had 140 million tweets posted daily, a statistic which I’m sure has increased in subsequent years.

By the beginning of 2013, ‘hashtag’ had already been propelled to a newly-adored status. It was no longer the obscure button on a phone keypad that no one ever used. At the start of 2013, ‘hashtag’ became the 2012 Word of the Year by the American Dialect Society (ADS). In fact, ‘hashtag’ has started to escape from its original Twitter origin and use – rival site Facebook has also adopted the symbol, albeit controversially. Yet it is an undeniable fact that we are hash-tagging more than ever.

The ADS brings me onto the second term which this post is about, and that is the phrase ‘hate-watching’, which was also nominated by the ADS for the 2012 Word of the Year prize. The phrase is a little newer than hashtag and perhaps is more obscure. The ADS defines ‘hate-watching’ as ‘continuing to follow a television show despite having an aversion to it’. Certainly on Twitter, we have all seen tweets or have written our own about a programme being watched which we are finding boring, dull or simply perverse, yet we continue to watch it and complain, instead of being slightly more pro-active perhaps and putting something on we do like. It also links to having a ‘guilty pleasure’…enjoyment taken from something which, in the grand scheme of things, is arguably awful.

As with ‘hashtag’, ‘hate-watching’ created a handful of derivatives and verb compounds. For example, ‘hate-listening’, ‘hate-reading’ and ‘hate-doing’. Interestingly, the concept of hating something but persevering nonetheless existed far before we had a term for it.

So in summary, the popular use of social networking sites influences our language drastically.