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Not Only Can Words Tumble, They Can Turn Themselves Around

AA: I'm Avi Arditti with Rosanne Skirble, and this week on WORDMASTER: our guest is someone who has spent decades editing dictionaries, lexicographer Sol Steinmetz.

RS: He was born in Hungary to a multilingual family, and has always been interested in words. His newest book is called "Semantic Antics: How and Why Words Change Meaning."

AA: "So if I were to describe your newest book here as egregious, by today's meaning it would seem like an insult. Tell us how the meaning has evolved. Why don't you take us through that a little bit."

SOL STEINMETZ: "Well, today, of course, it's a pejorative word. But originally, of course, it meant the opposite, as often the case is with many English words. It meant distinguished, remarkable and so on in the fifteen hundreds. Of course, the word was taken from Latin, egregius, outstanding, remarkable -- so it should mean remarkable. However, in the fifteen hundreds it acquired a negative meaning. I suggest in the book, perhaps from an ironical use in the original sense. I really don't know the answer why it reversed itself.

"But it's not uncommon that pejorative expressions become ameliorative, become good, acceptable. And the opposite is true also, of course, words like silly, which was a nice word meaning happy, blissful. And gradually it changed to what we call today stupid."

AA: "I didn't know that."

SOL STEINMETZ: "Well, it's in the book!"

RS: "Which brings us to the major question, is why you wrote this book?"

SOL STEINMETZ: "Well, I wrote this book -- first, it was a suggestion of my editor, Helena Santini. But aside from that, I was always interested in the fact, not being a native English speaker, I was fascinated by the fact that so many words seemed to be changing in meaning. And just by looking in the dictionary, you open it up and you see ten definitions. And I used to think as a child that every word had one meaning.

"So I was aware of the fact that words do not necessarily have one meaning. And so I kept looking and I found all sorts of words -- more than what I actually have in the book -- that have turned around completely. A word like nice, which originally came from Latin, nescius, meaning foolish, silly, because nescus is made up of two words: ne, no, and scius, knowing -- not knowing.

"And then it changed from foolish, silly to fastidious, fussy, dainty. And then gradually from dainty it became satisfactory, and from satisfactory it became pleasant and attractive. So today a nice person is a pleasant, attractive person."

RS: "So how do you explain how and why words change?"

SOL STEINMETZ: "Well, I have an introduction in which I go into it a little bit. The reason is mainly usage. People use words in a certain way and they don't necessarily use it [in] what we might say the correct way or the original way. If you borrow a word from Latin or from French and it has a certain meaning -- let's take the word litter, as I explain in the introduction. It meant originally a bed, and we still talk about carrying a litter as a kind of chair, a bed.

"But then, from that, it changed to bedding and then to animals on a bedding of straw, and finally to things scattered about, like in a bedding, odds and ends. So the technical term for this narrowing process is specialization. So if you see a sign that says 'don't litter,' don't spread around all kinds of stuff. And it doesn't seem to have anything to do with the word bed, but that is what it meant originally. And my point here in the introduction is that words change meaning as people use them in different ways."

AA: We'll have more with lexicographer Sol Steinmetz next week, talking about his new book, "Semantic Antics: How and Why Words Change Meaning."

RS: And that's WORDMASTER for this week. Learn more about American English at our Web site, With Avi Arditti, I'm Rosanne Skirble.