The Evolution of “Mean”

Ask any child nowadays what a “mean” person is like, and you’ll hear them describe a bully. But the word “mean” used to have other meanings (ahem).

My handy Apple dictionary widget gives these four meanings for the adjective (my paraphrases):

  1. stingy
  2. spiteful
  3. shoddy
  4. skillful

Shall we try these in sentences?

  1. “Mr. Mustard is such a penny pincher; he’s just a mean old man.” (loose adaptation from the Beatles)
  2. “I can’t believe you sent that snarky email. It was so mean.” (leaving out the mandatory LOL)
  3. “The mean furnishings in your rooms prove how poor your wages must be.” (said the stuffy elderly man to his struggling nephew upon visiting him in his London flat)
  4. “My old man was a mean pitcher in his day.” (said Timmy Clemens)

How on earth did we get to all these? Here’s my dictionary widget’s theory:

ORIGIN Middle English, shortening of Old English gemǣne, of Germanic origin, from an Indo-European root shared by Latin communis ‘common.’ The original sense was [common to two or more persons,] later [inferior in rank,] leading to sense 3 and a sense [ignoble, small-minded,] from which senses 1 and 2 (which became common in the 19th cent.) arose.

In less dictionary-speak:

Once upon a time there was an Indo-European word that meant (and sort of sounded like) “common.” As an adjective it was used to describe something that belonged to two or more people, as in shared property or a shared trait. Over time, this adjective developed the sense “inferior in rank.” (Maybe this is because something that’s common isn’t unique, or special, or particularly valued. See “common.”) This newer sense led to the adjective “mean” being used to describe stuff that’s not made well, or that’s of an average or “common” quality. This idea then got transferred from goods to people who are like those goods: people made of not very good stuff, common in their small-minded ways, not noble but plebs. (This must have happened during a period that believed in nobility; that nobles are nobles because they’re made of better stuff.) By the time the 19th century rolled around, this idea was taken in two directions: since noble-minded people are generous, “mean” people aren’t. They’re stingy with their money or their wealth more broadly conceived. And, secondly, since people of the best quality are also generous in their attitudes toward others, and don’t exact petty vengeances, “mean” people do exact such vengeances.

Which, on one level, suggests that once upon a time people thought spiteful, cruel, and vicious behavior was a kind of stinginess of soul.

But now we get “nice” as the (common, “mean,” everyday) antonym of “mean.” To be “nice” is to be polite, easy-going, and not too demanding. (I know this because I have a despicable tendency toward niceness.) Nice is not so much generous as just not demanding–a pretty hefty shift in valence.

As an antonym of “nice,” “mean” is sometimes now used to describe a person who is impolite, hard to get along with, and demanding. This is a modification of definition 2 above, based on our loss of the ideas “stingy” or “common” in the sense of ignoble. (Since Americans don’t believe one should act nobly, we also don’t believe one can act ignobly.)

But we can’t forget definition 4, even though my widget does forget it. In the relatively recent past, lots of the “bad” adjectives have been turned on their heads and made to mean something like their opposites. Thus, “bad, “nasty,” “stinking,” and “mean.” I don’t know what this signifies, but if you’ll give me a few minutes, I’ll figure out a theory that will be just as airtight as the rest of this post.

Partial tree of Indo-European languages. Branc...

Partial tree of Indo-European languages (from Wikipedia), included here because I’m a language nerd and thought it was cool.

Meanwhile, now you know what I do in my spare time. I try to figure out dictionaries and why words mean what people use them to mean. And then I take potshots at American values. It’s sort of like pub darts, but a lot meaner.


2 thoughts on “The Evolution of “Mean”

  1. Great post, thanks, John!

    I bet the pejorative connotations to mean go a long way back. If the word is an Indo-European root, there may have been a time when common did not have negative overtones but I’d guess the word soon gained them.

    For elites to maintain their elite status, they must make non-elite seem less desirable, i.e., common must me at the very least “not so good”. And there have been elites of one form or another since not long after the dawn of agriculture.

    From a writer’s perspective, I’ve always found it fascinating what the “haves” do to make the “have-nots” feel inferior, which is intentional as it helps sustain their “have-ness”. Arbitrary accents and arcane customs are the least of it. Rich stuff for a story. It’s also perceived very differently in the US and in Britain, for instance, which can pose challenges to the writer.

    There’s a meaning of the word noun that is interesting to look at as well: the statistical meaning of mean, which is, of course, “the average value” or in a loose sense the common value (although ‘mode’ might be closer to what most folks mean by common in a population of things, mode being the middle value.)

    • Yes, elites do have to do that, don’t they? And usually the plebs went along with it, figuring they were “common” and the others weren’t–which in a way was probably true.

      Then, just when you think we’ve outgrown all that, along comes a new crop of elites–and in a sense they really are more beautiful and talented than the rest of us. And still not worth more (or less) than anyone else.

      You’re right, lots of fodder here.

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