Wednesday, December 26, 2007

A tiny example of language change?

Yesterday, the missus was talking to a set of highly educated and sophisticated young folks — all around or under 40 — and discovered (don't ask me how) that they all knew the word louse only in the figurative sense, as applied to human beings: "a contemptible person", as Merriam-Webster's has it.

They knew the plural form lice for the little critters pictured here, but not singular louse. At least one of them (probably the youngest) went to a school where she knew a kid who had head lice, so the creature isn't foreign to them either. It seems clear that the main meaning is now the human one, but Mrs. V was a little surprised that they'd lost the old, basic meaning entirely.

It's surely the case that most Americans are utterly unaware that lousy originally meant 'louse infested', and now louse is going the same way. (M-W does have that meaning of the adjective listed first still, by the way.)

Well, hey, I did say a tiny example of language change.

Image from here.


Mrs. V said...

Just FYI I had originally discovered this talking to a group of college students here at our own University of Wisconsin.

Anonymous said...

I did not make this connection until I was 25 years old and studying linguistics in grad school. I knew all about lice, though.

An interesting connection is the word "nitpicker", with "nit" being the little round egg of a louse typically found at the base of hair/beard strand. Since lice were pretty much universal and the removal of the nits almost a compulsive habit, it has taken on the meaning of "critic concerned with or finding fault with insignificant details".

Interesting that it was such a universal scourge
that attempts to eliminate its source, however ineffective, were considered absurd.