In a struggle to be happy and free

Drystone Wall

The harkening back…

I’m reading The Professor and the Madman1, by Simon Winchester, and given that it details the circumstances around the creation of The Complete Oxford English Dictionary, there are plenty of unusual words thrown about!

I particularly enjoy learning of common words we use today having previous meanings that are virtually unknown now. Take heckling for example. According to Winchester, it meant

…the process of separating the individual stems of the flax plant from each other…2

And then,

…(often in a political context) in the sense of catechizing someone, making his or her arguments stand up to severe scrutiny, as a flax plant might stand for the scutcher.3

Neither of these definitions match how we use the word today, but you can see a progression through the meanings.

Another example I knew of before is broadcast. You certainly know the most common meaning today, but the word was first used in the middle of the 18th century. Like Heckling, it was a farming term:

Of seed , sowing , etc.: sown or performed by scattering widely rather than by placing in drills or rows.4

One would cast the seeds over a broad area. Broad-cast.

I wonder what other words we use today, perhaps in a technical sense, have much older meanings.

  1. Strangely, and inexplicably, the title of this book everywhere but the US and Canada is The Surgeon of Crowthorne: A Tale of Murder, Madness and the Love of Words.
  2. Simon Winchester, The Professor and the Madman: A Tale of Murder, Insanity, and the Making of the Oxford English Dictionary, 1998
  3. ibid
  4. The Shorter Oxford English Dictionary. 2007


Ghomeshi on trial




  1. Jennifer Alexander

    I so love etymology. I’m going to have to find this book you’re reading. Another good one that takes you back to word origins is “The Adventure of English: The Biography of a Language” by Melvyn Bragg. I’ve read it several times, and usually finish it thinking, “I wonder if there are any other books out there like this one?” As a matter of fact.… 🙂

    • Rick

      I’ve read “The Adventure of English” a few times myself! In fact, I was first turned on to it by the ten-part documentary derived from the book. I couldn’t help myself, I also bought the DVDs.

  2. Jonathan

    The directions on the chlorine for our pool instruct one to broadcast the granules over the water to disperse the chemical evenly.
    So I guess if you’re a farmer or the poor sap who battles green algae all summer you end up encountering this term in this context.

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