Words pass through time like great works of art or literature. People once winced at Nietzche’s works, considered relics of a lunatic, and now, we revere him as an intellectual icon. As with words, which rarely mean precisely what they did at their inception. The process driving their evolution is semantic drift, the way words change meaning in their lifespan. There are many ways they do this, but the least common of them is called amelioration.
Perhaps speaking to time’s usual habit to making things worse, words will often go from meaning something positive to negative, a process called degeneration. The chances for a word to escape its gloomy, miserable, or evil connotations are slim to none. But when they come to mean something cheery or positive, they undergo amelioration–and it’s amazing.
Amazing, derived from the noun maze, meant “confusing; perplexing” around the 14th century. It’s not entirely clear how it became something so unquestionably positive in the contemporary sense (“Did you see her sing? She was amazing!”). The likely culprit is the multitude of emotional contexts in which we may be “confused” or “perplexed”. For instance, we may be confused by a cruel act, but we may be equally perplexed when we see someone so talented we don’t understand it. Amazing must have been used to express awe more often over time.
Emotional words tend to be more black and white, except for truly confusing words such as these. Words like happy or sad have not strayed that far from their original meanings (happy used to mean lucky, sad meant sorrowful). But aren’t emotions like confusion and bewilderment inherently amazing… in the original sense? Does this give them the gray area for a rare semantic process like amelioration to do its unlikely and miraculous work?
Beginning the maze of semantic drift may seem daunting. But a word’s lunacy may reveal much about our own.
Melanie Falconer is a freelance writer and editor living in Los Angeles, California. Her writing mainly concerns philosophy, personal experiences, cultural commentary, and her love of the visual and performing arts. If you’d like to reach out to her, you can do so here.