“Shifting Meanings”

hussy (n.)

1520s, “mistress of a household, housewife,” deformed contraction of Middle English husewif (see housewife). Evidence of the shortening of the two vowels is throughout Middle English. Traditionally pronounced “huzzy,” in 20c. the pronunciation shifted to match the spelling. The sense gradually broadened colloquially to mean “any woman or girl.” By 1650 the word was especially applied to “a woman or girl who shows casual or improper behavior” (short for pert hussy, etc.), and it had lost all but its derogatory sense by mid-18c. (www.etymonline.com)

When I was in graduate school my mother bought the two volume compact edition of the Oxford English Dictionary(O.E.D. to aficionados.)I was riveted by it and spent time reading it for fun. (I had read earlier dictionaries for fun too. You might say I was/am a word nerd.) I stumbled on my favorite new word “crinkle-crankle” and used it to describe our brook winding along at the edge of the property.

But the biggest gift of a resource such as the O.E.D. is its clarification of the way words change over time. I have highlighted “hussy” because it is such a dramatic example of both the denotation and the connotation of a word changing. I used this instance when I taught literature to help my students see that words do actually change in one or both of two ways. Of course it is fun in the present to help my grandchildren understand that the “gay 90’s” were not populated solely by people they now know as “gay.”

I try to keep this knowledge in mind when I see people outraged over language in earlier literature. At one point “colored” was considered thoughtful and “Black” offensive. “Homosexual” was a much more polite form of the more common “homo.” “Mongoloid” was a softening of the label “Mongoloid idiot,” long before we knew to call it “Down Syndrome.” We kid ourselves if we think future generations won’t be appalled at what we think of as “common speech.” After all, Chaucer wasn’t insulting a woman when he called her a “hussy.”

31 thoughts on ““Shifting Meanings”

  1. Your last sentence about Chaucer calling a woman a “hussy” reminded me that there was an Academy Award-nominated actress named Ruth Hussey (unfortunately, I don’t know of any actresses named “mistress”). 😉

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  2. I used to read dictionaries when I was young. Hussy is a good example of how words change, and well-chosen by you. Though I doubt many people here under the age of 40 even know it, whatever the current meaning.
    Another English version is ‘Slag’. Once used to describe the by product of burning coal, stored on ‘Slag Heaps’, it became used after WW2 to describe women of loose morals, or ‘Easy lays’. Now I doubt very few remember the reference to coal, except steel workers and miners.
    Best wishes, Pete.

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  3. The mobility of the English language is fascinating Elizabeth!
    I enjoyed the subject of the ‘History of the English language’ at Uni.
    For our major assessment we had to translate a portion of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales into modern English.
    I was captivated by the challenge!
    Blessings,
    Jennifer

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  4. Brilliant! And I am always illustrating changing language by the words my grandmother used, which now have rather different meanings….eg gay and queer…

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