Etymology, or the study of the origin of words, is dry, dusty stuff that will give you allergies if you play with it too long. It also happens to be one of our favorite topics—because sometimes a word travels through such a twisted path to get to its modern meaning that all you can do is scratch your head and wonder how civilization manages to keep itself going. Read on to find out what word got its start with people biting the heads off chickens, how a peaceful word became an international symbol of hate, and how wooden shoes changed the world.
What it means now: “Completely lacking in subtlety; very obvious.”
What it used to mean: A thousand-tongued beast from hell.
In the 1600s, British began using the word blatant as a way to describe people who were vulgar and noisy. Granted, that’s not a major change to the present day definition, but before 1596, blatant wasn’t even a word; it was invented by Edmund Spenser in his fantasy story “The Faerie Queen” to describe a monster from hell, a giant beast with a thousand tongues—the Blatant Beast.
“The Faerie Queen” was essentially a long, drawn out allegory for 16th century English religion, and each character symbolized either a person or ideal in the real world. The Faerie Queen, for example, was Queen Elizabeth I. The Blatant Beast represented slander and wickedness, and as the story became popular, people began using the idea of the Blatant Beast as an insult to people who were too loud. It would be like calling a person who’s obnoxiously silly today a “Spongebob.” Eventually blatant lost the negative connotations of “vulgarity” and just became a synonym for obvious.
What it means now: “An unfashionable or socially inept person, or someone with an eccentric devotion to a particular interest (a computer geek).”
What it used to mean: A circus sideshow freak.
We all know what a geek is nowadays; the internet’s covered in them. Aside from the whole socially inept stereotype, geeks are also usually seen as pretty smart, even if that intelligence manifests as an encyclopedic knowledge of which enhancement gems give more agility to a Feral Druid in World of Warcraft, or something like that.
But originally, the word meant something completely different: a circus sideshow freak. As recent as the early 1900s, traveling circuses would display what they called “geek shows,” featuring either performers with some utterly bizarre ability or feature (The Bearded Lady, Pretzel Man, etc.), or a performance in which something bizarre happened. Usually, that meant a person eating something disgusting, like biting the heads off live chickens.
And as a further departure from the intelligent geeks of today, it’s believed that the word geek in those shows came from the old German word geck, which was basically a stupid person.
What it means now: “A danger or risk.”
What it used to mean: A gambling game played with dice
In the 14th century, Geoffrey Chaucer wrote “The Canterbury Tales,” one part of which describes young men playing a dice game called Hazard. This was a fairly popular game of chance in France at that time, in which one person rolls a dice while onlookers place bets on how a series of rolls will turn out. The rules were complicated to say the least. Try to make sense of this:
“The caster begins by throwing the dice to determine the Main Point. This must be a score between 5 and 9. Now the caster throws the dice again. If the score is the same as the Main Point, this is known as a nick and the caster wins. If a 2 or 3 was rolled, that’s an out and the caster loses. 11 and 12 are also outs, except in certain cases: a roll of 11 after a Main Point of 7 is a nick, and so is a roll of 12 after a Main Point of 6 or 8.”
Over time, the negative image of gambling led to the name of that particular game, Hazard, being used to describe any type of chance game, such as “He’s off playing hazards again.” Over about two hundred years, the word further evolved to mean any kind of risk. Interestingly, the game stuck around in a sense—craps is a simplified version of Hazard.