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The Scrivener: A Pretty Mean Pan

…I meant to say that the mean old fellow had ways and means of playing a pretty mean game of tennis.

Oh dear me, how complicated can the English language get? What do we really mean by "mean"?...

And Brian Barratt is just the chap to delve into history, searching for the meanings of meaning.

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Homonyms: Words which have several meanings, 4

I meant to say that the mean old fellow had ways and means of playing a pretty mean game of tennis.

Oh dear me, how complicated can the English language get? What do we really mean by "mean"?

It's been used for centuries as a noun, verb, adjective and adverb In English Through the Ages, William Brohaugh lists its usage through the years as follows:
— intend (verb) by about 900
— imply, signify (verb) by about 900
— inferior (adjective) by about 900
— middle (adjective) 1300s
— (the) means (noun) by 1450
— malicious (adjective) about 1670
— "pretty good" (slang, adjective) early 1900s

Oxford English Dictionary (the huge 20 volume work) has eight main entries and a great many pages dealing with them.

Summing it up in a different way, John Ayto's Dictionary of Word Origins identifies three major areas of usage. They come from three quite different origins in history. This is how homonyms occur — words with very different histories gradually change over the centuries until their spellings are identical but their meanings remain different.

— verb: to intend. This meaning is implied in Germanic words which were used long before Old English came into being. The even more ancient Indo-European root is something like men-, which also gave rise to words such as mind, mention and memory.
— adjective: petty, stingy. This usage also developed over a very long period of history and can be traced back via Germanic terms to another Indo-European root, mei-. The meaning slowly shifted from "common to all" to "ignoble" to "petty". In the sense of miserly, it is derived from Old English gemæne, common, and Middle English mæne, common. The meaning of niggardly did not come until the 18th century, from the 17th century meaning of unkind. These developed from the meaning of ordinary, poor in quality.
— adjective: intermediate, average. This one came into English from meien in Old French, the language spoken by the Normans. It started its life in Latin as medianus — you can see where "median" came from! It has kept its underlying meaning since it first arrived.

I've been searching through The Saxon Chronicle, a historical record kept by monks until the year 1154. They used alternative words for "meanwhile" and "meantime" but I found just one use of mændon, meaning meant, in the entry for 1083.

Another history of the English-speaking peoples, Layamon's Brüt, was written soon after 1200. Line 8294 (line 4143 in the version I have) has the word mæne in the sense of "make known" or "express" in relation to complaints. The very same word, mæne, meant moan as well as mean. You discover facts like this when you start digging around in the fascinating history of English.

By the time Shakespeare came along, about 400 years later, the word seems to have been more popular. The bard uses it over 250 times in his plays. In their very useful book Shakespeare's Words: A Glossary & Language Companion, David and Ben Crystal show examples of no fewer than 17 ways he used it, too.

The usage in phrases like "he plays a pretty mean tennis game" and "the boxer packs a mean wallop" arose in the USA in the early 1900s. It seems to be a colloquial reversal of a negative meaning, used for effect, rather like the way kids nowadays say "evil" when they mean "really good".

Some words keep their original meanings. Others change over the centuries. And some disappear altogether. When did you last hear or read about your brægen-panne, cne-panne or herne-panne? They are your brain pan (skull), knee-pan (kneecap), and in another form, your brain-pan, where herne comes from an old Germanic word for bain. The word "pan" was useful in those far-off days of Old English. Think about it — the kneecap and the top of the skull look rather like dishes. Panne in Old English meant a dish, especially a broad shallow dish used for cooking.

Though we no longer have a brain-pan, we have bed-pan, bread-pan, fry-pan, frying-pan, saucepan, and others. A lavatory bowl can also be a pan, giving rise to the colloquial phrase "down the pan". A hollow in the ground where sea-water collects and evaporates can be a salt-pan.

To pan something can be to criticise or damn it. This is a metaphor arising from panning for gold, where the gravel is sorted from the specks of gold. This usage seems to have started in the USA in the 1930s. On the other hand, the same metaphor can be adapted in a positive way. If something pans out, it turns out well. In other words, you found the gold.

Incidentally, words like panic, panacea, pandemic and pandemonium come from an entirely unrelated source, the name of the ancient god Pan. But that's another story.

This compilation © Copyright Brian Barratt 2010


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