When Words Are Not What They Were

I intended to post this yesterday, but I was having trouble with the WordPress ‘new post’ page, in that the visual toolbar wasn’t loading and none of the links (eg. ‘choose from used tags’ was working). Anybody else experienced similar issues?

I could turn this title into a rant about the written language being misused nowadays in the form of the social network speed and text-message inaccuracies, but, instead, I want to talk about the way etymology has changed words over the years.

The ironic thing is that – in the same way that ‘deja vu’ is used to only roughly mean ‘seen again’ – the phrases we’ve taken directly from Latin have evolved the most. English manipulates the words and makes them into a completely different meaning.


As an actress, I come across ad Lib (short for ‘ab libitum’) an awful lot, knowing it to be improvising on the spot when a scene may not work. However, this could not be further from its actually translation. ‘At one’s pleasure,’ with synonyms like bene placito (which is more like the French way of putting the phrase). Researching, ad lib is not only used in Drama, but can be used to mean its more literal self in both Biology and pace (musical). In both cases, the idea is that the animals and the composers work to their own schedules.

Ad hominem is another phrase I come across in reference to philosophy and arguing a case. Whilst the literal is ‘to the person’, we English use it to mean an idea more to appeal to the feelings or to attack an argument, by mentioning the flaws of the person rather than their argument. (This, as you may guess, is not the way to go.) Another English phrase for it is ‘informal fallacy’.

There are probably more, but those are the two that I have in mind.

Recently, I came across two Latin words that have a completely different meaning from the English we use them as nowadays. The English word ‘enormous’ has come to mean out of the normal size range, when ex-norm could actually refer to any irregularity in its actual sense. Obnoxius means vulnerable – believe it or not! It’s quite fascinating how words have changed so much over the course of time and through various dialectical issues. Although English is not directly derived from Latin, there are many connections between the style of verbs and the way we use our own.

For instance, I have seen that, just as Latin derives nouns form the fourth part of its verbs, so English takes up those fourth-part nouns – or English uses the stem of the fourth part of the verb to create its own verbs.

Eg. Inspicio, verb: fourth part: inspectus. Translation: inspect.



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