Words

& etymology

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We rarely take very much time to think about how powerful these little clusters of letters can be.

Words can mean different things to different people. The context in which you use a word can alter how it is understood. And the passage of time can also change the way a word is used. In the end, what we mean may not always be what we succeed in communicating.

With words, sometimes you can be hurtful even when that was never your intention. By the same token, it’s possible to twist words so that they are damaging in a ways that aren’t always easy to pin down.

Below, is a little word history or as it is sometimes called, an etymology. It shows just how much the use and definition of a word can change over time from its original intent:

queer (ˈkwir)

adjective

The earliest use of the word is from 14th century Scotland or Germany, meaning variously “oblique, off-center, perverse, odd.” Its use in the sense of homosexual or “queer” behavior was first recorded some 400 years later, in 1922.

verb

In 1790 it meant “ to puzzle, to ridicule, to cheat.” By 1812, it’s meaning changed slightly into “to spoil, to ruin,” as in “to queer a deal.”

noun

The first instance of the word being used as a noun referring to a homosexual man was in 1935 and was meant to be taken as an insult. Its derogatory meaning persisted for several decades and continues even today but, over the years, it came to be adopted by segments of the LBGT (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender) movement as a badge of honour. By the mid-1990s it was even being used as the term for its own area of academic study, Queer Studies.

From this example, you can see how a single word can rotate through several meanings. What began as a fairly general term for something out of the ordinary came to be used as a slur to disparage people of a specific sexuality. Then, after years of use as a negative term, it was reclaimed by the very group it was meant to insult.

In thinking about how we use language, it’s helpful to keep some things in mind:

  • Even the most well-spoken people often have great difficulty saying what they mean.
  • Asking questions about words is a good way to become more effective at using them.
  • Words do change in meaning and some become outdated and even meaningless.
  • When we’ve offended someone, being genuinely apologetic will often make things better.

We’d like to know what you think about these words. Look them up online and explore their definitions and history. When you feel ready, pick five of them and write a short explanation of what you think about the words.



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  • Is there a word or phrase that you’re passionate about? Or, how about a word or phrase you’d like to hear people using a little more? Share your word and write a little rant about it here: We want to hear about it!

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