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The Scrivener: Pretty Banks

...Words develop new meanings over the centuries. Someone, somewhere, might use an old word in a new way. Other people might copy. The new usage becomes common...

Brian Barrett goes delving into history, tracing the development of words which have several meanings.

This is the first in a series of ten articles.

To read more of Brian’s superb articles and stories please click on http://www.openwriting.com/archives/the_scrivener/

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The English language can be pretty confusing at times, for both beginners and regular users. Take that word "pretty", for example. Doesn't it mean pleasing, good looking? Yes, it does, but it can also mean rather, quite, fairly, to some degree, to some extent. "Pretty confusing" does not mean pleasingly confusing. It means rather confusing.

And then we go to Shakespeare's plays and find phrases like "I shall tell you a pretty tale". It can also be seen in "a pretty kettle of fish". This means it is awkward, muddled. (A kettle of fish was a term for a type of picnic, in times gone by.) It is extended in "a pretty penny", which means an uncomfortably large amount of money.

These ways of using "pretty", are homonyms. That means, literally, the same name. They have exactly the same spelling but more than one meaning. There are reasons for this. They are hidden in history, so let's dig!

The original word in Old English, about 1,000 years ago, was prættig. Its real origin is not known but it is similar to a word in modern Icelandic, which comes directly from the language of the Vikings — pretta is a verb meaning to cheat, to deceive. In this sense, pretty confusing can simply mean deceptive .

Words develop new meanings over the centuries. Someone, somewhere, might use an old word in a new way. Other people might copy. The new usage becomes common. Actually, it doesn't always take hundreds of years. For instance, hardware was once used mainly for tools and other metal implements which were sold by an ironmonger. An ironmonger? Yes, a seller of iron goods. About 170 years ago, it was adopted for use to denote military weapons. Within the lifetime of many readers of this article it was further adopted to refer to computer equipment. In this way, the ways we use words can reflect changes in the way we live.

So how did cunning and deceptive become pleasing and good looking? We have to trace the gradual development of usage and meaning. Cleverly made or cleverly done led to admirable. Admirable led to pleasing, which was adapted to mean pleasing to the eye. Writing a century or two after these developments, William Shakespeare used the word over 100 times in his plays and obviously had fun playing with the various subtle meanings:

— Farewell, pretty lady.
— Where dwell you, pretty youth?
— A pretty wise fellow.
— Hast thou the pretty worm of Nilus there, that kills and pains not?
— You are full of pretty answers
— Ay, sir, I have a pretty wit.
— pretty traps to catch the petty thieves.

We can bank on quite a lot of words being pretty confusing. But wait — where did that phrase "bank on" come from? A bank is a place where you can deposit your money. Traditionally, it is a safe place, though recent events in the early part of the 21st century throw some doubt on that. However, to bank on something implies that you can safely assume something being true or happening.

Then we have Oberon, in Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream, singing:

I know a bank where the wild thyme blows,
Where oxlips and the nodding violet grows,
Quite over-canopied with luscious woodbine,
With sweet musk-roses, and with eglantine;

Is this a bank where you put your money? That wouldn't be a good idea. It is a grassy bank of earth in the countryside, perhaps by a stream or river. Straight away, we have another usage of the common word, bank.

Meaning the edge of a river or a raised area of ground, bank came into English in the 12th century. It was adapted from Scandinavian words like Swedish backe and Danish banke. In Middle English, bank meant a mound or a shore. Bonk meant mound of earth.

The word for a financial institution came into English in the 15th century, adapted from such words as Italian bance and French banqu. The meaning related to a bench, table or shelf. In this way, it could denote a money lender's bench or table. So how did these two uses of the same word develop? Ah, that's a difficult question to answer.

There are similar terms in German and Dutch. It seems that the word and its meanings started in an ancient Germanic root (a base word from which later words develop). The earliest usage in English related to a bench or a seat. Later, the same word was used for raised piece or ridge of ground, The old Germanic root word probably denoted a raised "shelf" of earth, sand or rock. The idea of shelf was later developed into the usage for a bench, which can be visualised as a type of timber shelf.

There is an interesting story behind our word banquet, which means a lavish meal or feast. It comes from Old French banc, which meant bench. When it was made into a diminutive, banquet meant a little bench. The meaning has completely changed over the years. Banquet now means large meal or lavish feast.

I would like to add that William Shakespeare also used bank to denote a financial institution but he did not. However, he did extend the idea of a shelf of sand to describe the sea-shore, in "...the sea that chides the banks of England, Scotland, Wales".

This compilation © Copyright Brian Barratt 2010


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