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You’re reading the John McWhorter newsletter, for Times subscribers only. A Columbia University linguist explores how race and language shape our politics and culture.

Some time ago, I fell into conversation with a colleague about what we had been reading lately, and the person suggested that I absolutely must give Henry James’s “The Ambassadors” a try.

The pandemic intervened, and I forgot the recommendation. But I remembered recently and picked up the novel. Frankly, despite my profound respect for the book, it was a bit of a slog. James’s writing, especially in his last few novels, is not exactly for the beach. His tapeworm sentences qualify as literary Cubism at best or obsessive obfuscation at worst. Even James once recommended reading only five pages of “The Ambassadors” at a time.

But I was struck repeatedly by the fact that, sentence structure aside, so much of the challenge posed by James’s prose is that words often had different meanings around the turn of the century than they do now. This quiet evolution of language is a facet that can be damnably hard to notice day to day, yet its importance is hard to overstate.

The central point is this: The fit between words and meanings is much fuzzier and unstable than we are led to suppose by the static majesty of the dictionary and its tidy definitions. What a word means today is a Polaroid snapshot of its lexical life, long-lived and frequently under transformation.

The reason begins with the nature of concepts rather than the words that express them. Concepts shade into one another the way colors do. For example, to be foolish is a form of being weak; one kind of weakness is to be distracted by idle fastidiousness rather than focusing on substance; but fastidiousness is also a way of being careful or observant, of which one form is being socially agreeable — as in “nice.” I raise these examples because the word “nice” actually did describe each of those concepts over the course of several centuries, like a torch passed on from hand to hand in sequence. In 1250, people were called nice when they were dimwitted. Only linguists have any reason to know the circuitous path that took us from that definition to “kind.”

Crucially, this is not some isolated instance, but a typical one. It is why “silly” once meant “blessed,” “obnoxious” once meant “subject to harm,” “generous” once meant “of noble status,” and today we speak of “heading” out from a party and “heading” up the coast without for a minute thinking it has anything to do with our noggins.

Such evolutions are part of why “The Ambassadors” is best when sipped rather than quaffed and why older texts in general can often be hard to grasp closely. We’re accustomed to focusing on such changes in word meaning in, say, Chaucer or Shakespeare. But James is useful in demonstrating that a text doesn’t need to be nearly so old; much lexical evolution can happen in just over a century.

For instance, in “The Ambassadors,” characters use the word “wonderful” so often that one half expects a song with that title to break out. But James didn’t solely intend the word in the sense we know it today. When Miss Gostrey is taken aback by something the protagonist Lambert Strether says, James writes, “She had a wonderful look at him now.” But the look she gives him is clearly not the contemporary meaning, which is more or less a synonym for “marvelous.” James most likely meant that she was giving Strether a look of astonishment — i.e., full of wonder.

The word’s meaning has ooched along since James’s time — like “nice” — through a series of conceptual jumps. That which evokes wonder is, after all, likely something you think of as markedly pleasing, and thus to us today, “wonderful” evokes the pleasure more than the surprise. Such eternally floating semantic reinventions are the essence of how language works. Thus when Strether assesses himself as “I’m true, but I’m incredible,” it wouldn’t make sense if “incredible” meant “awesome.” (“I’m honest but I’m awesome”? James was above such lexical hash.) To James, “incredible” likely meant “unable to be believed,” based on the literal meaning of the components of the word. So Strether is saying that while he intends sincerity, he doesn’t trust his own instincts, and thus he is perhaps not to be believed.

To think of language as a list of words with set meanings is like thinking of the position of the clouds right now as somehow fundamental rather than as a passing moment. Attempts to ban all utterances of the N-word, for example, are entirely understandable, be they led by people within the Black community or established as guidelines by schools or companies seeking to temper the use of hateful language. However, total bans neglect that the word has sprouted off, amoeba-style, a newer meaning as a term of affection among Black people. And contrary to popular belief, this is not a recent phenomenon. Evidence suggests that Black Americans have been using the word in this way since at least the mid-19th century, given its rich presence in interviews with often quite elderly ex-slaves by the Works Progress Administration in the 1930s. The idea that the original meaning of the word is always in essence the only one — that the amoeba just sat tight for some reason, or that the true meaning of “obnoxious” must always be “subject to harm” — is rooted in a sense of language as it looks on a page rather than as it lives in the real world.

That artificial perspective also encourages the popular but scientifically fragile idea that the words and grammar of your language contribute meaningfully to your particular worldview. This is known as the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis or “linguistic relativism.” You may have heard the idea, for example, that the Chinese process time as proceeding vertically because the words for “last” and “next” in Mandarin also mean “above” and “below.” Or you may have heard that the way Spanish verbs work means that those who speak it are more attuned to the nature of responsibility and blame than English speakers.

But while it is true that your language does influence the way you think in quiet, subtle ways, the idea that it creates an entire worldview is possible only if one neglects that words’ meanings are hopelessly motile. The specific rub in these language-is-thought cases is that words can fossilize into inert chunks of grammar, zombie words that retain their original shape but are no longer alive, functioning instead merely as linguistic furniture. In that state, they no longer mean anything that could shape a worldview.

Languages quite unlike English help illustrate this. Where cattle and counting are concerned, in English we talk of “heads,” as in “three heads of cattle.” But many languages use dozens of nouns in this numerative fashion with all kinds of objects. Thai for “three eels” is three “bodies” of eel; Mandarin describes three “strips” of eel. It’s as if in English we couldn’t say “three apples” or “three beds” but had to say “three globes of apple” or “three flats of bed.”

But in any given language, which of these words you use with which noun can be entirely arbitrary. In Thai, both tables and eels are described as “bodies,” while in Mandarin, eels are “strips,” but tables are roughly marked as “flats” (as in, they are flat). Now, according to the idea that your language shapes your view of the world, we might expect that in an experiment, Thai speakers would be more likely than Mandarin speakers to perceive tables and eels as having qualities in common. But in fact, they aren’t. Mandarin and Thai speakers just know which counting word goes with which object in their respective languages and that, to an extent, you just have to know. It’s akin to the meaningless gender markings in most European languages that make “river” masculine in Spanish but “hand” feminine.

In such cases we are in “grammar” territory rather than “word” territory, something linguists call “grammaticalization.” The nouns that help represent numbers, for instance, are no longer the living ones in the dictionary that they began as. They have gone dead and become mere rules. They still sound like their original versions, but when used with numbers in expressions such as “three bodies of eel,” they are just fence posts. They were once living wood, part of a tree reaching for the sky, but they became grammatical lumber, merely corralling the words they modify from one another.

Or take another example of lexical evolution in English: “you guys,” as a way of referring to or addressing more than one person. Some have objected to using it to address women or to address men and women at the same time. They argue that “guys” — a noun with a masculine heritage — implies that maleness is a default category. But then, as many of us have witnessed, often women use “you guys” among themselves as readily as do men, and they have done so now for several decades.

That’s because for many English speakers, “guys” has evolved from its heritage meaning of “men” to just “people.” Like “heads” with cattle and “tua” with tables, it is still pronounced the same way as its progenitor word. But “you guys” has morphed into a new meaning: a blank, functional way of referring to or addressing more than one human being, an option for the plural “you” that English otherwise lacks.

One more aspect of the squishiness of the relationship between words and meanings is how sheerly arbitrary they can be. How a word comes to express a particular meaning rather than another one is often no more subject to analysis than why a dropped slice of toast lands on the floor jam-side down one time but jam-side up another. Think of the difference between two words that are variations on the same one: “human” and “humane.” No one can say precisely why “humane” took on a more refined and particular meaning and “human” did not. Roll the dice again and it could have come out the other way, just as “awful” once had the same meaning as “awesome” — i.e., “full of awe” — but soured into its current meaning, leaving the use of “awfully” in expressions like “awfully good” as a memento to its origins. Or did you ever notice, as my partner pointed out to me recently, that if you place the emphasis in the word “intersection” on the first syllable, it would be more readily understood as a place where you brake your car, but if you place the emphasis on the third syllable, it is more likely to be interpreted as a point of commonality between subjects or lines in space?

Again, the cloud metaphor for words is instructive. In an eternal spin and churn cloaking the globe, the clouds endlessly shift, blend, split off new offshoots, evaporate and are born anew. Under this analogy, meanings are the solid landmasses down below. At any given point, a cloud has a particular shape and hovers over a particular area. But it may change over time. Next thing you know, “character” no longer means a written symbol, as both Shakespeare and Henry James used it. In “The Ambassadors,” Strether sees familiar handwriting and James notes that “he had dozens of well-filled envelopes superscribed in that character.” But gradually the word wafts over to a related meaning: that which marks a person out as distinct in a way similar to what a written “character” does — one’s, as it were, personal “character.” Evolving further, individuals with a remarkable aspect about them start being referred to as characters, and we have yet another new meaning.

This mutable and sometimes random essence of language may seem shabby or untoward compared with the schematic, tamed one we are taught. But in the end, real language is dynamic. The fun is in looking back at how things have changed and always having an ear open to what might be next.

John McWhorter (@JohnHMcWhorter) is an associate professor of linguistics at Columbia University. He is the author of “Nine Nasty Words: English in the Gutter: Then, Now and Forever” and, most recently, “Woke Racism: How a New Religion Has Betrayed Black America.”