Word Play

I have gotten into the habit of using a walking stick around town, partly because of the rough terrain (the sidewalks here are worse than a lot of the trails I used to hike) and partly because of my iffy knees. The other day I wondered if I should stop using the stick because it’s become more of a crutch than a necessity, and it occurred to me how strange it was that the word “crutch” has come to mean the opposite of what it used to mean as well as keeping the original meaning of being a device to help when one is injured. In both cases, a crutch is something we rely on, but in the first case, there is a hint that the reliance is unnecessary, and in the second case, the physical reliance is a necessity.

This led me to think of other words that have come to mean something different while also keeping their original meanings, such as “moot.” Originally, something moot was a point to be debated. Now in general usage it means a point that is so obvious or so irrelevant that it needs no debate.

Smart is the same. Originally smart something sharp. Then people began calling those with a sharp tongue “smart.” And now, smart is largely associated with intelligence, though it still retains its original connotation when we refer to a sharp pain as smarting.

Other common words have taken on the opposite meaning of the original intent, and the origins have been lost somewhere along the way.

Two that interest me because they show more of a centuries-old prejudice against the poor than because of the words themselves. A villein used to be a bonded servant, a poor person, one who had nothing but was tied to land owned by someone else and could not leave it without permission. Now, of course, a villain is someone bad. Same with naughty. A naughty person used to be a person with naught, a poor person. So, the general idea, which holds today, is that people without anything are somehow bad.

I tried to find other fun words online, but most of them seemed silly to me. At least by today’s definition of silly. “Silly” used to mean blessed or fortunate. “Nice,” on the other hand, used to mean silly.

One word I did find interesting that I wasn’t aware of was “hussy.” A “hussy” was originally a housewife. Wow, what a turnaround to today’s meaning! “Radical” also has undergone a radical change — it originally meant something rooted, basic, fundamental, not, as it has come to mean, something or someone who advocates upheaval of fundamental ideas and complete social or political reform.

And all this because of a walking stick that may or may not be a crutch.


What if God decided S/He didn’t like how the world turned out, and turned it over to a development company from the planet Xerxes for re-creation? Would you survive? Could you survive?

A fun book for not-so-fun times.

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7 Responses to “Word Play”

  1. Uthayanan Says:

    Playing with words always beautiful. I am always in a learning process as far as I am not a native English or American.
    I have learned today there is a usage crutch in slang and physical crutch and psychological crutch.
    Please take a banana before go to walk. And magnesium intake.
    Naturally possible. As far as you have a rich vocabulary and have fun with playing with words. It helps me always to learn.

  2. Malcolm R. Campbell Says:

    Fun stuff, looking at how words have changed over time. I can spent hours reading my Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable.

  3. Estragon Says:

    To me, the meaning of “moot” hasn’t really changed all that much. The point of a moot court isn’t really the subject matter at hand, but rather the way in which the opposing points are put forward. It’s the debate itself that’s important.

    In modern usage, to say that a “point is moot” seems to me to say that the argument is valid and well taken, but not to a subject or condition since changed.
    Something like, “Should my wife and I have spent more time doing ‘X’?”. The point is now moot.

    What really gets my goat is when someone says a point is “mute”.

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