Words, Words, Words (2)

Next, for strange words, consider cheapskate. It comes from the 1890s and combines the word cheap, meaning “stingy,” and skate, an obsolete word once used as a negative slang term for a person who’s generally disliked.

That brings us to villain. The word first came into English from the Anglo-French and Old French vilain, derived from the Late Latin word villanus, which referred to those bound to the soil of the Villa, people who worked on an equivalent of a plantation in Italy or Gaul.  What does it tell us about us that we use a term that originated as a name for humble farm worker now to mean, as Merriam-Webster puts it, “a person of depraved and malevolent character who deliberately plots and does serious harm to others”?

 And finally (for now, anyway), investiture. The word comes from Latin investire, meaning to cloth, from vestis (garment). It means a formal ceremony in which someone is given an official title, rank, or honors. Presumably the term came to its current meaning because of our custom of dressing an honored person in a cloak or gown symbolizing his arrival a new level.

What can we learn about ourselves by looking at the way our words evolve? I could speculate, but in fact I don’t know. I’d welcome my readers’ thoughts.

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