Originally posted 8/20/12

Mean is one of those words that I knew well would have been around forever, but I looked it up to see about some of the particular uses. And as usual, found a few surprises. =)
As a verb, mean has meant “intend, have in mind” even back in the days of Old English. No surprise there. It shares a root with similar
words in Dutch and German and various other languages, perhaps from men,
which means “think.” But the unexpected part–the question “Know what I
mean?” is only from 1834! Of course, that’s as a conversational question, a saying. I daresay the words were uttered as a particular question before that. Know what I mean? 😉
As an adjective, it began life as “low-quality.” Like “a mean hovel”
that the poor dude lived in. But it also carried a meaning, rather
related, actually, of “shared by all, common, public.” And presumably, if something were shared by all, it wasn’t really high in quality, eh? So
“inferior, second-rate” was also a natural progression for the word and came about in the 14th century.
I knew this definition would be the oldest but, when I looked it up, was more interested in when the most common meaning if mean
(meaning of mean–ha . . . ha . . . ha…) came into play. It acquired the “stingy, nasty” implication in the 1660s, and was then pretty strong. We Americans had to come along to give it a softer side
of “disobliging, pettily offensive,” so that didn’t come about until
1839–again, there’s the surprise!
an interesting note on it too. The inverted sense of “remarkably good,”
(think “wow, he plays a mean piano!”) is from 1900, most likely from a
simple dropping of a negative, like “he is no mean piano player,” (mean here being either “inferior” or its other meaning of “average.”)
Have no mean Monday, all! 😉

Print Friendly, PDF & Email