Some gentle notes for the mean season

A look at how two identical words of very different origin drifted into one – and provided a perfect term for just this time of year.

Scott Anderson/The Journal Times/AP
First-grader Henry Anderson puts his hands on the window pane of his school bus after seeing school again as he arrives for the first day of school at Fine Arts Elementary School in Racine, Wis.

This column is not about the presidential election. But its topic may sound a bit Bill Clintonesque: what the meaning of mean is.

This multi-definitional little word came up in the newsroom the other day and prompted some research: How did an adjective rooted in ideas of “common” and “fair to middling” or “average” morph into a colloquial substitute for “vicious” or “cruel”? (“Mommy, Jacob is being mean to me!”) 

The Oxford English Dictionary has two main entries for mean as an adjective. “Mean, adj. 1” comes from an Old English word signifying “possessed jointly.” 

That sense continued until at least 1900, in the phrase “in mean” – a field “held in mean” by several owners, for instance. Today we’d say “in common.” Common, from Latin, covers much the same territory as this mean

Over time, though, mean picked up a raft of negative meanings – inferiority, lowliness, shabbiness, and stinginess, as well as cruelty. Martin Scorsese’s 1973 film “Mean Streets,” for instance, seems to have captured almost all of these attributes in its title.

Oxford’s “mean, adj. 2” came into English via French. Its natural home seems to be among mathematical and logical concepts of “intermediate,” “in between” and “moderation,” as well as “average” (“mean temperature”). 

Semantic drift is a linguist’s term for the shifts in meaning that words undergo over time. 

As jointly held property came to be disdained in favor of something more “exclusive,” Mean 1 picked up connotations of inferiority. When being merely “average” ceased to be good enough, Mean 2 became a term of disparagement as well.

But because the two words looked identical, people began to see them as the same word, never mind their very different derivations. To quote Oxford on this point: “[T]he truth is probably that the meanings of two originally quite distinct words have merged.” 

Mean 2 gives us meantime, literally “the time between” one event and another, and also meanwhile, a synonym with an additional sense of “at the same time,” with a whiff of “on the other hand.” 

This makes “meanwhile” a journalist’s go-to transition word to connect disparate chunks of material that seem hard to fit together gracefully in a story. “Camp A is doing x. Meanwhile, Camp B is doing y.” As long as the two events are happening at the same time, they can be skewered together, like a complicated deli sandwich held together by a giant toothpick, with that single word meanwhile.

Oxford also lists something called the mean space. 

And then there’s in the mean season. It’s apparently another variation on “meantime.” But it strikes me as a perfect word for this “time between” high summer and the full arrival of the fall. 

It’s after Labor Day; the students are back in school. A sweater in the evening no longer seems quite so ridiculous. But the days are still a bit longer than the nights, and I’m not quite ready to give up on summer. 

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