948. Would you believe "bully" once meant "lover" and "nice" meant "ignorant"? Join me as we explore the surprising twists in the histories of common words, including the words "amok" and "bimbo." Plus, why you should preorder books to help authors succeed even though some people find it illogical.
948. Think you know where words like "bully," "nice," and "bimbo" come from? Think again! Join me as we explore surprising origins of common words. We'll see how terms like "bully" and "nice" changed meaning over time, how "bimbo" switched genders, and where oddly violent words like "amok" and "berserk" originated. Plus, did you know "soon" once meant "immediately"? Learn these twists and turns in the curious histories of familiar words!
Plus, we look at the publishing industry meaning of "preordering" books and how it helps authors get on bestseller lists, even though some find the term illogical. And explain why you should preorder books to support your author friends.
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by Valerie Fridland
If people using "literally" non-literally really get your goat, you might be surprised at the number of words you use yourself that now have very different meanings than the ones they started with.
Grammar Girl here. I’m Mignon Fogarty, your friendly guide to the English language. Stick around because after we talk about a bunch of words with surprising etymologies, we're going to talk about whether the word "preorder" is redundant, and we'll end with a familect story that made me laugh out loud.
Here's our first word with a surprising history: "bully."
In modern English, this word is far from what we would call a term of endearment. Instead, a bully, a person who harasses and intimidates others, has become the subject of widespread anti-bullying campaigns at schools and workplaces. But, in a very unexpected twist, earlier in our history, a bully was a lover, not a fighter. The word "bully" appears to have come into English from the Middle Dutch word “boel,” meaning lover, of all things!
According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the earliest citation for the English word “bully” is from a comedy written by John Bale around 1548, where he describes a woman as “myne owne sweete bullye,” followed by a reference to her pretty face. In this period, “bully” was a term like “dear” or “sweetheart” and could refer to anyone. The word soon grew to be mainly a term used among men along the lines of a friendly “bro” one would say to his figurative brother. You can find an example of this in Shakespeare’s play "A Midsommer Night’s Dream," where Peter Quince says to his fellow performer Nick Bottom, “What saiest thou, bully, Bottom?” But by the 17th century, "bully" started to refer to people full of swagger or bluster, particularly groups of rowdy young men trolling the streets of London. From this, we seem to get the modern meaning of "one who acts aggressively and hassles others." When a word moves from a positive meaning to a more negative meaning like this, linguists call it semantic pejoration, from the same root as the word "pejorative."
On the opposite end of the spectrum from "bully" is the word “nice,” a word which it turns out wasn’t always so, well, nice. Arriving in English alongside William the Conqueror in the form of Anglo-Norman French, the word first meant “silly,” “foolish,” or “ignorant” (with this sense going all the way back to its Latin form, “nescius,” which also meant ignorant). This earlier meaning is clear in this quote from “The History of the Holy Grail” from 1450: “They seiden he was a fool..and that they sien neuere so nise a man.“ (They say he was a fool and that they had never seen so ignorant a man). Even more surprising given its contemporary sense, we see early examples of “nice” being used to describe a person or behavior considered lascivious or immoral, as in this use from a 17th century text: “What nice and wanton appetites.” It is not until the next century that “nice” gets nicer, in other words, used to talk about an agreeable or pleasant thing or person.
So how did "nice" so drastically improve its station? Well, by 1400 we also find “nice” used to refer to someone who was finely dressed, often in a showy sense, and perhaps a bit of a well-dressed fool. But as time went on, this use of “nice” took on an association with refinement and culture. By the 1500s, it seems to have taken on a more positive spin and an association with good breeding, as we see in this quote from a report describing the life and people of Virginia in 1588: “Some also were of a nice bringing up.” By the 1700s, “nice” had turned its reputation fully around. For example, Jane Austen used it in a letter dated 1799, where she talks about a “nice” woman– meaning a respectable and virtuous woman.
As opposed to pejoration like “bully,” (when a word's meaning becomes more negative over time) “nice” had what linguists call “semantic amelioration” or improvement over time. As an interesting aside, though “nice” and “silly” would seem to have had much in common, given "nice"’s early meaning, “seely,” the original form of “silly” actually meant "happy, pious or innocent" when it first arrived in English, and so had a better reputation than “nice” in its early days. It shifted to its more negative sense by 1500, having taken on the aspect of happy innocence that could be taken as weakness or simpleness.
I am guessing that the image that comes to mind when you hear the word “bimbo” is more likely than not an attractive ditsy female. But the word “bimbo” actually started out as a riff on the Italian word, “bimbo,” meaning “male child,” and when it first gained traction in English as a slang term, it was used to describe men, not women. In fact, the Oxford English Dictionary defines the word’s earliest meaning as “A man, a fellow, a guy; often one who is stupid, inept, or objectionable,” giving this early example (which refers to a man) from American Magazine: “Nothing but the most heroic measures will save the poor bimbo.” Very shortly thereafter, though, we find it used to describe an attractive woman, first seeing it in the 1920’s song “My Little Bimbo Down On Bamboo Isle,” about a sailor’s female mistress. Its use in a more pejorative sense, referring to a sexualized pretty but unintelligent woman, seems to have taken off around the mid-70s, and it’s during this period that Google Ngrams show a big uptick in written use. The shift in its meaning toward mainly women is further supported in the development of the later term, “himbo,” to refer to male bimbos, which first shows up in writing from the 1980s.
Moving on, the next time your procrastinating friend tells you they are going to do something “soon,” you can call them out on not getting around to it quickly enough, because, it turns out, the word "soon" carried a sense of “immediately” or “without delay” in its earliest use. In fact, we still see traces of this meaning in the “as soon as” construction, which suggests that action will occur immediately after some other action is completed, as in “Squiggly will go on a diet as soon as he eats that last piece of cake.” It appears that the more modern meaning, “shortly,” developed around the 12th century, and, because it was hard to be much quicker than “immediately,” a comparative form — “sooner” — didn’t appear until around the 13th century, finally allowing us to be a bit more or less soon to arrive.
And “soon” isn't the only temporal term that's been shifting over the centuries; the Shakespearean sounding “anon,” which carried the meaning of “soon” or “ready” in his day, also originally meant “at once.” For example, in early Middle English, “He went anon” meant “he went at once.” Both “soon” and “anon” shifted away from their original meanings likely because the sense of immediacy weakened over time when people intended its “immediacy” to be understood relative to some other time (After eating cake, Squiggly went soon to bed [i.e., right to bed]), or it was used a bit loosely by those who, um, tended toward procrastination. In other words, human nature being what it is, people happily took advantage of a little wiggle room in how soon exactly “soon” had to be.
Next, in modern parlance, to “run amok” means to be wildly out of control, but what is most interesting about this word is not so much a meaning change over time, but where the word originates. The word came from the Malay words “amuk” or “meng-amuk,” both of which describe being in a state of frenzied murderous rage. In the 16th century, we see the word “amochi” or “amuco” used by European sailors to describe fierce Javanese warriors who pledged to die fighting. Other accounts, such as that of British explorer Captain James Cook in the 18th century, claimed amok was the result of a bad opium trip. But, according to Malay cultural beliefs, amok was caused by possession from an evil tiger spirit known as “hantu belian,” which overtook a person and made them behave uncontrollably and violently.
Though amok was viewed as tied only to [quote-unquote] "exotic" cultures, biased by beliefs of early European cultural superiority, the term is very similar in meaning to the word “berserk,” also borrowed into English, but this time from a European source. In Old Norse, a berserker was a battle crazed warrior who fought uncontrollably and furiously. Both terms, of course, have shifted to a more figurative meaning in modern English, used to describe wild or uncontrolled behavior, minus the murderous streak – as in, “The kids have run amok and are driving me berserk!”
As a final side note, if you are curious about more words English has borrowed from Malay, look no further than “bamboo,” “gingham,” “orangutan,” and “cooties” (from "kutu," the name of a parasitic insect).
That segment was written by Valerie Fridland, a professor of linguistics at the University of Nevada in Reno and the author of "Like Literally, Dude: Arguing for the Good in Bad English." You can find her at valeriefridland.com.
by Mignon Fogarty
My tip-a-day-book, "The Grammar Daily," is coming out November 14, and I'm so excited … I think you're going to love it, and I'm currently encouraging people to preorder it — and I know I'll get the same comments I always get when I encourage you to preorder other people's books: that the word "preorder" is redundant because you can really only order something. That when I click the buy button, I’m ordering, not doing some kind of "pre" action that comes before ordering.
I completely understand what people mean. I do. But "preorder" has a different meaning in the publishing world. It specifically means to order a book before its publication date. And besides writing a review, preordering a book is one of the best things you can do to help your author friends because bookstores look at how many preorders a book has when they’re deciding how many books to order for their stores or even whether to order books at all.
Preorders can also help a book get on bestseller lists because all those orders that come in during the preorder period get tallied the week the book is launched, and the bestseller lists are based on how many books you sell in one week. So if you have 5,000 preorders, and then the week the book is actually launched you sell another 1,000 books, the sales for that first week are counted as 6,000, not 1,000, and that could make the difference between getting on a bestseller list or not.
The word "preorder" goes back all the way to the 1600s, and the Oxford English Dictionary shows the first modern use to mean “ordering something in advance” in 1937. I’ve only heard the word "preorder" in a publishing context, but all the citations in the OED are about other things. For example, that 1937 citation talks about preordering furniture for a house that is being built. And my editor tells me preordering is a thing for video games too.
You can write "preorder" with or without a hyphen. The OED uses a hyphen, but the Merriam-Webster online dictionary and Webster's New World College Dictionary both list both forms, with the unhyphenated version first.
Although "preorder" isn’t logical, English isn’t always logical, and "preorder" has developed a specific meaning: “ordering something in advance.” And if you have friends who are authors and you want to support them — preorder their books.
And if you're a reviewer, you can get a review copy of "The Grammar Daily" from Netgalley right now.
Finally, I have a familect story.
"Hi, Grammar Girl. This is Kathy. First of all, I just wanted to thank you. I love your Podcast. Sometimes people say, 'Why is grammar so important?' But I feel that if you are mindful about what you say and how you say it, then you will become mindful about what you do and how you do it, and that's just a short step from being mindful about how you treat other people. So I just want to thank you for doing your part in making the world a better place. I have a familect story. When I started, when I was just a young director starting my career in Atlanta, my parents came up to watch the broadcast, the news broadcast, and they were to see their daughter do her job in the control room. So as you can imagine during any live news broadcast, things got a little intense in the control room. Words tend to fly pretty freely around the room, and at first my mother sat there quietly and just sat through it, but then one particularly intense curse word flew from her daughter's mouth. My proper Southern mother let out a gasp, and so the technician leaned over and said, 'Don't worry Mrs. Bowen. That's just short for "shift to the high-intensity transmitter."' And so from that point on, anytime we needed to let our feelings be known freely, we would shout, including my mother, would say, 'shift to the high intensity transmitter.'" And it's very effective. It's a very useful phrase. I will admit, though, that I continue to use the abbreviated version in the control room. Thank you again. Love your show.
I absolutely laughed out loud, Cathy. What a wonderful story. Thank you for the call.
If you want to share the story of your familect, your family dialect, a word your family and only your family uses, call the voicemail line at 83-321-4-GIRL. It’s in the show notes, and be sure to tell me the story behind your familect because that’s always the best part.
Grammar Girl is a Quick and Dirty Tips podcast. Thanks to our audio engineer, Nathan Semes, and our director of podcasts, Adam Cecil. Thanks also to our ad operations specialist, Morgan Christianson; our digital operations specialist, Holly Hutchings; and our marketing associate, Davina Tomlin, who's trying to learn more about visible mending.
And I’m Mignon Fogarty, better known as Grammar Girl. That's all. Thanks for listening.
The following was not included in the audio but is included here for completeness.
Oxford English Dictionary, s.v. “amok, n.”, July 2023.
Oxford English Dictionary, s.v. “anon, adv.”, July 2023. https://doi.org/10.1093/OED/4787918947
Oxford English Dictionary, s.v. “berserk | berserker, n.”, July 2023.
Oxford English Dictionary, s.v. “bimbo, n.²”, July 2023.
Oxford English Dictionary, s.v. “bully,” n., July 2023.
Oxford English Dictionary, s.v. “himbo, n.”, July 2023.
Oxford English Dictionary, s.v. “nice, adj. & adv.”, July 2023.
Oxford English Dictionary, s.v. “soon, adv.”, July 2023. https://doi.org/10.1093/OED/4787918947
The Cut. 2021, “The Reclaimation of Bimbohood.” Accessed August 2023. https://www.thecut.com/2021/12/reclaiming-bimbo-bimbotok.html
Shakespeare, William. @1595. Midsummer Night's Dream (iii. i. 8).
Smith, Chrysti. 2014. Run Amok. Javanese warriors inspired phrase for wild behavior. Accessed August 2023. https://www.bozemandailychronicle.com/go/words/run-amok/article_e48c2198-5aee-11e4-bae6-9b2c73353573.html
Saint Martin ML. 1999. Running Amok: A Modern Perspective on a Culture-Bound Syndrome. Prim Care Companion J Clin Psychiatry.1(3):66-70.
Smith, Jeremy. 1996. An historical study of English : function, form and change. Routledge.