Language is an incredible thing. Not only does it give us the ability to communicate with one another, it also inspires us, motivates us and often surprises us. It can be used to charm, hurt or just confuse when wanted – or all three at once! Words themselves can be more effective than force or as forgettable as what you had for dinner last week. They can also have some pretty unusual origins… as we’re about to find out now!
Snob – We all know one. Those sad people who feel the need to be ‘condescending or overbearing to others’ whilst ‘slavishly admiring social superiors.’ However, its original meaning was oddly enough “shoemaker” or “apprentice shoemaker”. (more things that start with a)
It was first used as a slang term by Cambridge students in the early 18th century to describe any non-student. Times had changed by the 19th century, however, many of Cambridge’s elite having to ‘lower’ themselves by living with the sons of wealthy merchants, the term evolving to refer to these wannabe social climbers. In time its classist connotations vanished and we can now happily use it on anyone acting holier-than-thou.
Goodbye – Now this is a great one to impress people with. Surely a simple combination of ‘good’ and ‘bye’, right? Nope. This every day phase has biblical beginnings. Originally folks would say ‘God be with you” separately before eventually shortening this to “God b’w’y,” which itself was eventually shrunk to “Godbwye” (letters to words). At the time people were already saying “good night” and “good day,” so before long common sense prevailed and “good bye” entered the world.
Dunce – A poor soul whose not too quick when it comes to learning. Not the kind of word you’d imagine to come from a Scottish philosopher, is it? Well, John Duns Scotus, born around 1266, was a Scottish Franciscan philosopher and theologian whose works on metaphysics, theology, grammar, and logic were incredibly popular at the time. His devoted followers became known as ‘Duns’ and he was regarded as a very intelligent fellow indeed. So why has ‘Dunce’ became a derogatory term?
Well, once the Renaissance came along many of Duns’ theories and methods were discredited by Protestant and Humanist scholars. Duns’ supporters faithfully stuck to his ideas, so much so that the word “Dunsman” or “Dunce” was eventually morphed into an insult to describe those who continued to support his outdated ideas. Over the centuries the word gradually became used in a more general sense, referring to anyone considered slow-witted. A sad legacy.