Meanings changed by time

Flashy characters

This word for "showy" or "cheaply attractive" comes from the village of Flash in England. Squatters who lived outside of Flash moved from fair to fair around the countryside, like gypsies. They were usually up to no good.

According to word sleuth Robert Hendrickson, their slang was called "Flash talk," and a "Flash man" was a thief or a tramp.

It was their distinctive clothing - bright and conspicuous - that led to the adjective "flashy," as we know it today. But, beware! Anything "too flashy" carries that other, more pejorative sense of the Flash man - a counterfeit or a sham.

From the forge, it's brand-new

This term originally applied only to things - usually made of metal - that had been molded or finished in fire. Why? "Brand" is an old Anglo-Saxon word meaning "burn" or "torch." In the Middle Ages, only articles like horseshoes or swords fresh from the forge were said to be "brand-new." In time, the term applied to just new things, completely losing its fiery sense.

"Today a brand-new product may never have seen a furnace or kiln," notes word man Webb Garrison.

Those zany Italian actors

This word may look like modern slang, but it's rooted in old Italian comedies from the 16th to 18th centuries. Zanni was the name of a buffoon who mimicked one of the stock characters, often the clown. Zanni is the contracted form of the proper name Giovanni, the Italian for "John."

Once Zanni came into English as "zany," its meaning changed from "buffoon" to any simpleton or fool, and then to anything whimsically funny.

SOURCES: The Encyclopedia of Word and Phrase Origins, by Robert Hendrickson; The Barnhart Dictionary of Etymology, by Robert K. Barnhart; The Morris Dictionary of Word and Phrase Origins, by William and Mary Morris; The World Book Dictionary; Brewer's Dictionary of Phrase and Fable, by Ivor H. Evans; Dictionary of Word Origins, by Jordan Almond; 'Horsefeathers, and Other Curious Words,' by Charles Funk; A Second Browser's Dictionary, by John Ciardi; 'Loose Cannons and Red Herrings,' by Robert Claiborne; 'The Story Behind the Word,' by Morton Freeman; 'Why You Say It,' by Webb Garrison.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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