When Words Change Meaning

If you do meet Horatio and Marcellus,
The rivals of my watch, bid them make haste
That's from Hamlet, by Shakespeare, written more than 400 years ago. The word rival once meant "A person having the same objective as another, an associate." Of course, we now use rival to mean "competition". The old meaning makes more sense in the play.

So, words change meaning over time. We can imagine this as a slow, pleasant change. But reality is not so pleasant.

When there was just the meaning of "associate", there was no problem; when there was just the meaning of "competition", like there is now, we have no problem. But if both existed at the same time, they conflicted -- Horatio and Marcellus are either associates or competitors, but not both. If both meanings were possible, the audience of Shakespeare's time wouldn't have known which one he meant.

And they fought to the death. We know that "competition" won out; I will say that it assassinated "associate".

I want to talk about this specific process. It's hard to look at words in the past; I will talk about words in the present.

Enormity, Brackish, and Scour

It's hard to find words that are in the process of changing meaning. People tend not to be aware of both meanings, and those clueless people usually include me, though enormity turns out to be a fairly well-known example. Each word tells a different story, but the story is fairly similar for these words.

Enormity once meant something like "evil". That's meant to be an approximate definition. Enormity is now is used often to mean something "large". These definitions compete:

Ella contemplated the enormity of the organization
The don't compete perfectly. The enormity of an event, for example, is probably "evil", but the person could be thinking about the large number of people involved in the event, the large area affected by the event, the large number of consequences, etc.

But contrast this to, say, pretty:

Ella was pretty
Ella was pretty tall

Those are two different meanings of pretty. One is as an adjective modifying a noun, and the other is an adverb modifying an adjective (an intensifier). They can't be confused. Instead, they can peacefully co-exist.

The two meanings of enormity do not peacefully coexist. If you used enormity to mean evilness, people might understand it as meaning large; if you used enormity to mean 'large', people might understand you as meaning 'evil'.


Now, suppose you read about "brackish water." And suppose you have never seen the word before (or not paid much attention when you did). Can you figure out the meaning?

Well . . . it doesn't mean depressed, because water doesn't get depressed. So brackish has to be some property that water can have. And, usually, the unmarked form of water is good. So you can guess that brackish means bad. If you were thirsty and had a choice between "water" and "brackish water", you would take the water.

That level of awareness is usually good enough to get the word right on the SAT test of vocabulary.

It turns out that there is seawater, which is salty, and fresh water, such as in rivers, which is not. And when they meet -- a river empties into the sea -- the water is a mixture, and this mixture is called brackish water. It can have it's own ecology, as far as I can tell. So this is a useful word to marine biologists and ecologists.

But it's very strange that we even have such a concept. If you had half a glass of salty water and you mixed it will half a glass of fresh water, you would have a full glass of salty water. It wouldn't be as salty, of course. The first glass might be really salty, and the combined glass might be just pretty salty, but we don't make up words to describe various levels of saltiness.

Or, if you had a half glass of sugared water and a half glass of plain water, and you mixed them together, we would not have a new word to describe that.

So, someone might see the word brackish. Unless the concept is fairly thoroughly explained, they might never pick up the meaning from context. And so they will think that brackish water has something wrong with it, or something in it that normal water doesn't have.

There's another clue -- the "ish". Something is, say, greenish when it contains green. So something must be brackish because it contains brack. Or brac, sometimes the k is added.

That doesn't solve the problem, but we can now expect that the water is not hot, but instead that it contains something that isn't water.

That is, um, actually true -- water is brackish when it contains brac. That would be useful if the person knew what brack (or brac) was. Which no one does. But our language does contain the phrase bric-a-brac. I suspect people might not have a solid understanding of that either. But we are left with water than contains things.

And anyone coming to that conclusion will be "wrong". I'm going to put that word in quotes.

Now, when people get a meaning in their head for a word, they tend to think they are right. I don't know how it could be otherwise -- you would be unconfident about every word you ever learned? That's not practical. This confidence can be over-confidence at times; it can even be arrogant. But exist it does. And so our person who does not know the "correct" meaning might use brackish in a sentence.

The bucket in the corner was filled with brackish water.
Why would they do such a thing? They might want to impress their reader. They might want to be vivid. They might want something more exciting than water, or something more precise than dirty water. And remember they think they know what brackish means. They learned it the same way they learned almost all of the other words in their vocabulary, and that process usually works well enough. To be honest, this is probably not an important detail to the story; an author might not care what brackish means.

And now we have "mis-users", using brackish in the "wrong" way. Someone who knows the correct meaning of brackish, and only that, will assume brackish has the correct meaning. That might work perfectly, leading to a plausible meaning that the author did not imagine or intend. Or there might be a little frisson -- a bucket is actually unlikely to contain a mixture of sea water and fresh water. Perhaps they imagine the bucket containing salty water than is not as salty as the sea. Or there could be a "clunk" as the correct definition makes no sense.

But most readers, as you will recall, do not know the correct meaning. They won't be bothered at all. But . . . what will they pick up from this misuse? Not the correct definition, we already decided that. But, most likely, the usage will be mildly or wildly inconsistent with the "correct" usage.

So the mis-use proliferates. Actually, in this case, the "correct" usage is unlikely to be found outside marine biology. It simply doesn't come up often. The wrong usage? That can appear anywhere. So, the average person might be in the situation where they are more likely to see brackish used by someone who does not know the "correct" meaning than by someone who does know the "correct" meaning.

And . . . voila! You have people using brackish to mean something like the water 'has things in it" and people understanding it that way. True communication has been achieved. And once that happens, it's really difficult to call that meaning "wrong". I mean, when people use rival to mean competition, we don't call that wrong. At the time there might have been some logophiles who were really upset about the word being "misused". But at some point, it's not "mis-use" and it's not "wrong", it's just a "new meaning."

Of course, it's a meaning created by ignorance. And for that matter, by people not looking the word up in the dictionary. So there's a lot to be said for calling the new meaning "wrong". It depends on your attitude towards words, and it depends on how well the "new" meaning has caught on and how long it has been around.

And the meanings would definitely compete. Without the new meaning, people could talk about brackish water and be confident that the reader knew what they meant (or at least didn't know the meaning but wasn't jumping to some wrong conclusion). Now the reader might interpret brackish as having the wrong meaning. No one might actually have that worry -- the world might consist of people who know only one definition. (Or none at all.)

Now, there are two ways to take this story about brackish. One is purely hypothetically. I could have made up a word, like frug, and talked about it instead of brackish. I could have kept the same meaning, or had a different meaning. And I would have been describing a process.

And the first claim I want to make is, this process is plausible. Nothing in it was implausible.

Of course, it will be more plausible if I can show that some word has gone through this process. We have shown that rival changed, but now how or why.

I am claiming that this process happened to brackish.

Actually, about a week ago I read brackish being used in what I am pretty sure was the "correct" way. But before that? I don't see it often, but it almost always is (apparently) not used to mean a mixture of sea water and fresh water.


So let's talk about enormity. Every word tells it's own story, but enormity seems to be a lot like brackish. First, it's not a common word. So there is a large pool of people who would not know what it meant and are vulnerable to learning the "wrong" meaning.

Context might work. Someone might read: "She was frightened, not by the size of the organization, but by it's enormity." Of course, that could happen for brackish too: "He didn't want to drink the brackish water. it looked clean, but it was too salty for his taste."

But that doesn't seem common. Since I have not seen the word enormity used correctly, as far as I know, I cannot speak to context authoritatively, but a nicely ambiguous "the enormity of the operation" seems likely. To be practical, if the context supplies enough information to learn the meaning of the word, the word isn't needed. Or, from the opposite perspective, if an author thinks you will understand a word, they author will let that word do the work, and the "context" needed to learn the meaning of the word won't be present.

It's very obvious what people are going to do when they see enormity for the first time: They are going to think of the word enormous. Techncially, I think the construction of enormity means 'containing some enorm', but that's a fine point that will be ignored. (And we all know English words can behave unpredictably, like the plural of data not being datas.)

So, the new meaning will be something like 'enormousness'.

Enormity is a nice example, because people have become aware of this problem, so we can talk about how they deal with noticed problems.

One thing that happens is that people call the 'enormousness' meaning wrong and try to stamp out the incorrect usage. I have a visceral response to hearing a word used in a way I have never heard before that contradicts my understanding. I am, in a way disgusted, and I want to correct that. For example, I thought that the first time I heard "emergent" to describe a situation that was an emergency.

Um, we can imagine parents correcting their children when the children use a word wrong, and see this visceral response a key part of protecting our language from the forces of chaos. (And I do not mean that as a trite cliche.) For all I know, only a species of nit-pickers can create a viable language. So let us not criticize.

Apparently scolding doesn't work. I will use the term logophile to mean someone who cares about the meanings of words. Obviously I am a logophile; obviously you are a logophile; obviously most of the world is not, though some people will have a passing interest in some words.

So, probably only logophiles read those warnings. And here, I should note, the warnings might be successful a lot of the time. I don't really believe that, but it's possible -- all we see are the words that do not get stamped out by this first immunological response to the linguistic intruder.

The dictionaries have to deal with this. At some point they have to just give up and say the "new" meaning is one of the meanings. Miriam-Webster online does this. The problem is, if you use enormity to mean largeness, I think you are ignorant. Of at least that. So a dictionary has some obligation to tell people that. Or the dictionary might want to join in on the "prescriptiveness" of saying how a word should be defined. So the OED calls that meaning "incorrect".

And I, as writer, have to deal with the dual meanings. I can use enormity to mean "evilness", and I can know that I am being correct. I believe sanctimonious is the correct word here. But that's not very practical. I have to calculate how many readers will understand my usage as meaning "large". In fact, it's probably a lot, but even a moderate amount would cause me not to use the word.

That assumes I know the word has two meanings.

I can also use enormity to mean "largeness". Now, according to my estimation, most of my readers will understand the word the way I intend. But perhaps not all. And some might think me ignorant. (I think the correct description here is just desserts.)

I could use enormity when something is both large and evil. Then, no matter which way the word is taken, the understanding will be correct. But the goal in writing isn't to be correct, it's to communicate. If I want to communicate largeness to my readers, I need a word that all of my readers are going to interpret as large. Same for evil.

And, you might think, I can at least use enormity to communicate both meanings to the people who know two meanings. But not even this works. I know I want both meanings, but those readers don't.

So, the word enormity is useless to me.

Which means, the people who know both meanings will tend not to use the word, which means "correct" usages of the word are being taken out of circulation. Meanwhile, the "mis-user" are clueless about the double meaning, so they keep using the word (incorrectly).

So the word is still being used. And there will be confusion, when the author assumes the word has only one meaning and the reader assumes it only has the other meaning.

I note here that if everyone was completely knowledgeable and wise, usage of the word would stop and the word would die. The completion of this process -- changing from one meaning to another -- requires people to keep using the word. In a way, our ability to communicate is founded on the illusion that it is much better than it really is.

There is another thing. If people today (or whenever this change started) are capable of making this mistake, so are people of the past. They might have had a different logo-ecology, that made this "mistake" unlikely. They might have had a logo-ecology that made this mistake possible but not likely to catch on (or "take off"). So previous usages of the "wrong" meaning are possible.

Dictionaries are ideally suited -- or unsuited -- for handling this problem. It is well known that words can have different meanings. So the dictionary can happily list both the old and the new meaning. However, two meanings of a word is useful and can persist only when the two meanings do not compete. And dictionaries do not worry about whether their different definitions are competing.

Dictionaries have another issue. I know roughly what rank means, but not exactly. Does it mean smelling bad? Or does it mean rotten? Or does it mean things that smell bad because they are rotten? If something is rancid, is it rank?

A lot of words have these "fuzzy" understandings among the hoi polloi, and I rate myself as a logophilic hoi polloi. I once read that "civil twilight" lasts until it is too dark to work, which is a very interesting concept and I can imagine a very useful word, especially in older times. (Now it might mean "too dark to play volleyball" or "too dark to cut the lawn"). Could "dusk" start when civil twilight ends? That would be interesting and useful. And the fact is a lot of signs say "closed at dusk". It might be useful to know when that is.

However, if other people are like me . . . the policeman who has to enforce that law has a vague notion of dusk. The people who made the law might have only a vague notion of dusk. The people writing the dictionary might have a vague notion, or they might be describing the standard notion, which is vague.

What the dictionary should do is give the vague notion of a word. This is hard to do. What they usually do instead is give different definitions. For example, they might say that rank can be used to describe a bad smell, and the next definition might be to describe something rotten or rancid.

And, people are liable, in their heads, to have different understandings. I actually assume that people have different ideas of what dusk is. And the meanings within the larger category (a time after sunset but before night) are more easily shifted.

So, perhaps enormity can be used for evilness, and perhaps it can be used for a lack of morals. If the meaning changed from one to another, that would be impossible to track. It could be people using the same word in different situations or having different specific meanings of a vague term.

The cross from one major meaning to another is different. There is a difference between evil-vaguely-defined and large-vaguely-defined.


Do the two meanings of bat compete? Not really; not that I know of. I mean, I can write a sentence where they do: "He saw a bat on the grass." But that never works out to be a problem in practice. The obvious difference is that the two domains are so different.

But bat is also a noun. It will get used in a sentence, or a scene, and that usage is going to give away the meaning. "He swung the bat." "The bat scared him."

Adjectives are different. They tend to modify a noun, and they end to work alone. "She was frightened by the enormity of the organization."

So, to speculate, adjectives might be more vulnerable to this problem than nouns. But nouns and verbs can have this problem.


Scour is essentially the same. There are actually two words spelled "scour", with totally different etymologies. The first is to clean with great effort, as in scouring a pan. The second is associated with searching, as in "to scour the horizon."

So, scour means "search". Does it say more? The "new" meaning of scour is to search thoroughly. But the old meaning is (roughly) to search rapidly. And those compete -- a rapid search is not thorough, and vice versa.

It takes no skill to imagine where this new meaning came from. Scour-to-search was probably not common, it was probably ambiguous in context, and people took the idea of throughness from scour-to-clean.

Someone once told me he was going to scour something, I asked if he meant he was going to look at it quickly, and he said "Of course." I almost don't believe him, but he was a Harvard graduate so maybe he isn't in the hoi polloi. I don't know. My guess is that you will not find anyone assuming the old meaning and you can safely use scour to mean search thoroughly.

I don't use scour, I admit -- I worry about the potential ambiguity.

Anyway, to me scour is near the end of this process, enormity is in the middle, and brackish is in the middle or maybe closer to the start. And they share some features that other changing words do not, such as making a slow change and being affect by similar-sounding words.


Enormity, scour, and brackish are also unimportant to me. I have better choices than enormity, I can clarify scour, and I don't use brackish. My next examples are more important. They are also more controversial, perhaps because they are more important.

Someone wrote to a dictionary and said there was a meaning of racist that the dictionary didn't list. The dictionary agreed, and added it. The word was racist (or racism). Even to talk about it is dangerous. Hoping this can be taken as a discussion of words . . . If you want to read further, you must agree not Fto criticize this as politically incorrect or racist or political, etc.

The two meanings can, roughly, be described as "virulent racism" and "systemic racism". In the past, people were killed for being the wrong race. Let's call that virulent racism. And let's include all deliberate damage -- refusing someone a job, not allowing them to use a restroom, killing them, not letting them buy a house, etc. This presumably still occurs. This, I think everyone agrees, is not as bad as it used to be.

What about if a man walks into a restaurant and is refused service because he is wearing tennis shoes, and a sign clearly says no tennis shoes. That might not be racism at all. Or there could be some systemic pattern. In the case I am thinking about, the black man who was refused service noticed that a white woman was served who was wearing tennis shoes.

This still does not mean that this was an instance of racism. It could be that they rule is not consistently enforced, and just by coincidence it was enforced against one person and not another. It could be that some tennis shoes are easier to notice than others. We could have to look at the broad pattern to demonstrate racism.

No one looked at the broad pattern for that restaurant, but the consensus seems to be that a look at the broad pattern shows racism. So, we can be sure that racism exists, but this broad evidence still does not point to any particular instance as being racist, though of course people can have their opinions, which may or may not be more or less reasonable.

Or, suppose a man is suspected of being a theif about to rob a house, and the police are called, but then everything is innocent. The man was not killed, or injured; he did not lose his job. This is not virulent racism, but it can be systemic racism, where this is more likely to happen to a black man.

No one thinks that this just happening once is good. But it's a much bigger problem when it is continual.

Do these meanings compete? Yes, they surely do. If someone is called a racist, or accused of racism, it is not known which meaning is intended.

The creation of the new meaning bears no resemblance to the process for enormity, brackish, or scour. Everyone knows the first meaning; there is no confusion with some other similar-sounding word. Instead, there apparently was need for a word to express this "newer" concept, and "racism" fit, so it was used. So the word itself expanded into a new nich in the idea-sphere.

Suppose there is a word, frug, to mean someone more than 7 foot tall. And suppose a new meaning arises, asfrug is used to desccribe someone more than 6 foot 6 inches tall. There will be the normal confusion. But suppose you know that both meanings exist, someone is described as a frug, and you do not know which meaning is intended. You can conclude that the person is at least 6 foot 6 inches tall. And so, in a way, the second mean defeats the first. Paper covers rock would be the appropriate metaphor.

But there's another thing going on. If someone is called a frug, they could be a frug for being only 6 foot 6 inches tall. But there is a possibility that the person is being called a frug because they are 7 foot tall. That creates a serious problem if someone is called a racist -- they may take that to suggest they are virulently racist.

There is another difference. The first meaning of racism is very obvious. The second meaning is couched in the logic of stastical testing, and cumulative effects. It is not quite a natural way to think.

So, there could be people who have only the first definition. This could be because they were not exposed to the second definition. It could be because it is very difficult to extract from context, and somewhat difficult to formulate at all.

So, one person might accuse another of some act of racism and call that person a racist. The person being attacked might not know the second definition and think the first definition is being used. And so there might be an emotional disagreement, even a conflict, based only on having different definitions of a word (becaue the definitions compete). I am not the first to suggest this; it seems to be well-accepted that this could be part of the problem.

Are there more problems? The first definition has a much stronger negativity than the second definition. So, if someone just wanted to win an argument, they could attack someone based on the second definition and hope to get at least some of the increased negativity of the first definition. This would not be good communication in the sense of being accurate, but that sometimes is not the main goal in these interactions.

Dog Whistle

A narration in a fiction book might say, "If Ella had known what was going to happen that day, she would not have gone to school." That would be the author stepping outside the story to talk to the reader, which is not good imo.

The narration can alternatively say, "Ella knew that her day was going to be perfect." On the surface, that's the opposite of saying there will be problems. But to a knowledgable reader, it in fact signals that there will be problems.

So, anyway, it's a useful technique in writing and I wanted to talk about it. I made an analogy to a dog-whistle. The "old" but "correct" meaning was that a whistle could have a high pitch that could not be heard by humans but could be heard by dogs. And my writing technique was similar, in that not everyone would "hear" the message -- it would take some skill to get the message, albeit a skill most readers would have.

I was attacked for using this metaphor. The best sense I can make of that attack is this. The phrase "dog whistle" is now used a lot in politics. Meanwhile, who has ever seen an actual dog whistle? Or heard one? So that's a subtle reference. And when a word or phrase is used a lot in just one domain, that can give the word or phrase a new meaning.

And so, the "new" meaning is the one used in politics. However, it seems to be contentious whether or not people actually do use dog whistles. In using "dog whistle" as a metaphor, I was stating that they exist. I meant the high-pitched whistles, they took me as me asserting that they exist in politics. So they attacked.

You might think I am exaggerating. Perhaps. How would I know? But this webpage confidently offers up the new definition. . They were clueless about the old meaning, or they didn't care, or thought it an unimportant detail.

This is my example of me knowing the "correct" definition and getting in trouble because I did not know the meaning of the word was changing. And, of course, "change" is not the issue. The problem occurred because there were two available definitions that competed. It did not depend on which came first or which was correct or if any change was actually completed. But that's the case for any of these words.

Oak and Festoon

The oak tree was described as having oval leaves. Oak trees don't have oval leaves. Why would an author do that?

Well, the author first did not have a good grasp of what an oak tree looked like. But the author didn't want to just talk about a tree. The author wanted to be vivid and powerful. So the author wrote "oak".

Then the author wanted more vivid imagery, so the leaves were described. The author did not look up what an oak leaf actually looked like.

Another author described an oak tree as if it had one main branch. Again, I think this is wrong.

The meaning of "oak" is not going to change. There is too obviously a correct definition, embedded firmly in biology, which is seen as having the deciding vote on this issue. The point is, an author is perfectly capable of choosing a word presumably to be more vivid and powerful, and not looking up what the world actually means.

Such as this:

A wooden plaque in the entryway was engraved in cursive with the words Home is Where the Heart is, and the entire house seemed to be festooned with these observations. (The Fault in Our Stars, Green, page 26)
Festooned is a particular formation. If an oak tree is festooned with moss, that means the moss doesn't hang down from a branch, it instead rests on two branches. Used in context, a listener is liable to just extract "decorated". So that second meaning would be expected to take over the first.

Another word is exponential. That's a really tough concept to understand. So it would not be surprising that if it was in common use, say during Covid-19 to describe the spread of the virus, that it would acquire a meaning of rapid growth. Again, the concept is rooted in mathematics and they get the deciding vote, so presumably the mathematical definition will be perceived as correct for all time.

Epic and Gridlock

As far as I know, epic> is supposed to be a type of story. Mirriam Webster's first definition:
a long narrative poem in elevated style recounting the deeds of a legendary or historical hero
The second definition is stupider, but it probably fills a gap that we otherwise do not have words for.
a work of art (such as a novel or drama) that resembles or suggests an epic
Note that they use "epic" in the definition of epic. A No No? It makes sense, but you have to understand they mean the first definition. Note also that they could have combined definitions or changed the order; they pay tribute to word origin with this order.

The third definition is only a little stupider and again presumably fills a need

a series of events or body of legend or tradition thought to form the proper subject of an epic
Then we get to adjectives. The first one is revealing:
of, relating to, or having the characteristics of an epic
an epic poem
Using epic in the definition again. As a noun, it probably refers to all three types of meanings.

The example shows the problem. If there was only definition #1, epic poem would be redundant, unneeded, and probably people wouldn't use it. This example in a way competes against the existence of definition #1.

And, then, what are people supposed to understand of this? You can guess:

extending beyond the usual or ordinary especially in size or scope
Epic is now in relatively widespread use for this meaning. I think this meaning might include: "a story could be told about this." As far as I know, gridlock is a particular traffic problem where literally no one can move. The simpler meaning would be traffic where no one is moving or is very crowded. The two definitions from Mirriam-Webster are startlingly predictable.
1: a traffic jam in which a grid of intersecting streets is so completely congested that no vehicular movement is possible
2: a situation resembling gridlock (as in congestion or lack of movement)
We see, again, gridlock used to define gridlock, with of course the first meaning intended.

Words to Come

Former presidents typically use their numbers only as a shibboleth among insiders and friends.
and the cicada stans are coming in hot.