The niceties of wickedness and silliness

Overheard on the Massport Shuttle at Boston's Logan Airport: "My mother has a wicked bad accent. She grew up in Brookline. She says things like 'the "idear" of it.' She asks me, 'Did you see that "ahtticle" in the Globe?' "

The dramatis personae: a trio of university-age women from different parts of the country who seemed to be just getting to know each other - prospective dorm-mates at one of Boston's colleges, perhaps? In addition to Ms. Massachusetts, there was one from Minnesota (with a very long "o" in "Minne-so-o-o-da"), and one from Long Beach, Calif.

The young women's exchange provided an interesting data point on the state of wickedness in New England. I don't mean the kind of wickedness that used to land people in stocks on the town common. I mean "wicked" as an all-purpose intensifier, as in L.L. Bean's "Wicked Good" slippers.

A number of sources out there confirm my impression that "wicked" is a New Englandism that has spread. "Wicked," in its more traditional meaning, has had another life recently as the title of a Broadway musical telling the Wizard of Oz story from the witches' perspective.

Linguist Guy Deutscher has a term for these shifts of meaning: "perpetual motion." That's actually the title of a chapter in his forthcoming book, "The Unfolding of Language."

This perpetual motion is a natural process of language, even when the changes are so extreme as to be unsettling. "Resent" for instance, etymologically means "to feel again." It originally was used to describe strong feeling, good or bad, in response to something. Nowadays, though, "resentment" is tinged with bitterness; it's that bad feeling one feels again and again.

"Nice" has had so many meanings, and changed them so often, that it's the adjectival equivalent of a chameleon. It has meant everything from "affectedly modest" to "wanton and lascivious," often at more or less the same time.

I happened to notice recently that the word "silly" is rooted in Old and Middle English words meaning "good, blessed, innocent, happy, prosperous." The Word Detective explains, "From the 14th century onward ... it gradually came to mean 'blessed,' then 'innocent,' then 'harmless,' then 'helpless or pitiable,' then 'weak, poor, or feeble,' then 'weak in the mind or crazy,' until finally in the 16th century it acquired its modern meaning of 'foolish.' "

The Oxford English Dictionary notes that from about 1550 to about 1675, "silly" was much used in various senses of "defenseless," "weak," "pitiable," and so on, but "in a number of examples it is difficult to decide which shade of meaning is intended by the writer."

If the OED has trouble with this, there may not be much hope for the rest of us. But Mr. Deutscher is bullish on people's ability to maneuver in the shifting traffic lanes of meaning.

Our ability to read clues of context and tone of voice (irony, or not?) in the living language of our own times is considerable; it enables us to cope with wide fluctuations of meaning.

"When it comes to language, we are all incredibly good drivers - all of us have been trained to race in the streets of Naples, and this is why we don't crash head-on into one another all the time," Deutscher says.

If, as he would have it, we overhear two elderly ladies coming out of the Gershwin Theatre in animated conversation about "wicked," it may be that they are discussing the musical's central theme. But hear "That was wicked!" from the two teenagers behind them, and that's probably a good review of the show.

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