Exercise on Semantic Change

"The times they are a-changin'."

Another week, another assignment by our beloved professor Dr David J Wrisley. This week’s exercise is less flamboyant at face value than its preceding homologue, yet it still boasts the same degree of exploration and experimentation that make these tasks particularly interesting to undertake. For this exercise, we are required to pick three words from a list posted on the course webpage, and then trace their semantic change by using the OED. To satisfy my generally northbound yearnings, I tried to pick three words I perceived to have Anglo-saxon origins: Weird, wicked and awesome. Here are the travel logs of my philological journey.

Day One: Weirded Out.

A cursive look at the search results after inputting the word “weird” into the OED reveals that the first leg of my track is not only long and arduous, but also bifurcating: There are three entries for "weird", a noun, an adjective and a verb. "Weird" the noun is by far the earliest of the three, the OED showing the earliest instance of the word in its database in 725, as “wyrde” and “wyrd”, the Anglo-Saxon form of the word. The OED offers the following etymological insight into the word:

The word is common in Old English, but wanting in Middle English until c1300, and then occurs chiefly in northern texts, though employed also by Chaucer, Gower, and Langland. The normal later and modern form would have been wird, and the substitution of werd, wērd (which is natural in south-eastern Middle English) is difficult to account for in the northern dialects. In senses now current the word is either Scottish or archaic (chiefly under the influence of Scottish writers).

The earliest meaning of the word pertain to the concept of fate, either directly referring to it, or referring to the “Fates”, the three goddesses determining the destiny of human life in Greek mythology. As the noun “weird” fades away in middle english, it resurfaces in adjective form in the early modern era, describing something as “Having the power to control the fate or destiny of human beings, etc.; later, claiming the supernatural power of dealing with fate or destiny.” This is a direct reverberation of the initial denotation of the goddesses, re-popularized by the growing number of translations of the classical world, and the fascination of literary authors by that period, most notably with the "weird sisters" appearing in shakespeare’s Macbeth.

1791 parody of Henry Fuseli's work by James Gillray

The word continued its trudge towards its modern meaning, only being imparted with it by the romantic authors, who seemed to initially use it with reference to the supernatural and the mystical. Eventually, this meaning pertaining to the odd occurrence was dropped and the oddness itself of the occurrence became the chief definition of the word.

Day Two: Wicked Word of the West

The second word’s path proved more linear but no less deep. There are two entries in the OED for the word “wicked”, both adjectives. The more straightforward one literally means having wicks, “wick” being the porous material used to light lanterns and other flame-informed apparatus. The other entry is more compelling, and is one more familiar to the modern reader, its meaning oscillating between various degrees and types of nefariousness. Interestingly, the nexus of meaning held by the word is fairly static throughout its long épopée from middle english to the modern era, with the single exception of its american slang meaning, denoting something “excellent, splendid”.

Its evolutionary pattern in the english language is lackluster and serves as a Casus belli to uproot the word etymologically. The OED gives us the following:

Middle English (13th cent.) wicked , wikked , apparently < wick adj.1, as wretched < wrecche wretch n. and adj. The later wiked appears to be merely a graphic variant; forms with the lowered stem-vowel are of both types, wekked, weked.

The promised oasis of knowledge after a long trek in the desert proved to be a mere puddle, further arousing my thirst rather than quenching it. The other X on the proverbial map points at the root of the word, "wick".

It is useful to say that “wick” seems to have a plethora of meanings in old english, notably through the prevalence of the root in many modern usages, such as in city names (warwick, norwich, the writing of which changed due to the regionality of the vernaculars of middle english) where it means home, the previously mentioned inflammable material and other specific usages.

Thankfully (and frankly, quite expectedly), clicking the “wick” hyperlink in the etymological section links directly to the one pertaining to “wicked”.

The page opened denotes an adjective, “wick”, with its earliest instance in the OED dating back to c.1200. The etymology offered reveals the origin of the word:

originally wicke , wikke , apparently adjective use of Old English wicca wizard (of which the feminine is wicce witch n.1); but perhaps an alteration of early Middle English wicci (? < *wiccig, < wicca), of which the following is the only known instance <
1154   Anglo-Saxon Chron.         (Laud)     ann. 1140                   Þe king him sithen nam in Hamtun þurhc wicci ræd.


Day Three: Awe and then Some

The final word's path was effortlessly treaded, my hard-earned sure-footing navigating the linguistic maze being put to work. "Awesome" immediatly leads to a single page in the OED, with the word's meanings oscilliating between the modern slang use of "marvellous" and the literal reading of the word, "full of awe". It's etymology section is also fairly succint and straightforward, directing us the root of the word, "awe", being combined with the suffix "some", two words in the 1500's combined, and then there were one.

The origin of the word awe reveals a very interesting development:

The actual awe, in 13th cent. aȝe, was < Old Norse agi, accusative aga (Danish ave), representing an Old Germanic *agon- weak masculine (of which the Old English repr. would have been aga); but this was preceded in Early English by native forms descending from Old English ęge, strong masculine, < Old Germanic *agiz strong neuter, Gothic agis fear, taken as if it were a strong masculine agi-z. (Both < ag-an to fear.) The Middle English eye, (aye,) and awe, were thus in origin and derivation distinct though cognate words, but were practically treated as dialectal variants of the same word, of which aye was still used in s.w. c1400, while awe was in the n.e. c1250. The sense-development is common to both. They are therefore here taken together; the examples being separated into groups α(from Old English ęge) and β(from Old Norse agi)

The root "awe" seems to have originated from two independent words from Old Norse and Old English, to be then used interchangeably in Middle English, before being gradually normalized into the modern spelling of the word. The meaning of the word variates between "Immedieate fear, terror" and Immense reverence when facing a supreme being, usually with divine connotations.