Usage manuals like to point out that notorious refers to someone or something of unfavorable reputation and that the word should not be used to mean merely famous or notable. While this is true to an extent, like many questions of usage the answer is more complicated, and in fact few writers actually use the word mistakenly.

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Many words have changed their meaning over the centuries, but none so significantly, widely, and often as nice. Today, the word most often means pleasant, good-natured, attractive, and has a positive connotation. (At least in most contexts; describing a potential romantic interest as “nice” can be damning with faint praise.) But it was not always so. Over the centuries, the meanings of nice have ranged widely, and include: silly, wanton and lascivious, ostentatious and showy, scrupulous, fastidious, cultured and polite, virtuous and respectable, cowardly, lazy, tender and delicate, strange and rare, shy, undecided, subtle, precise, thin, unimportant, sensitive, and require tact. 

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mug, mugger

Mug is a word that has undergone a number of semantic shifts, or changes in meaning, over the centuries. So much so that today one wonders what connection, if any, there is between the drinking vessel and getting robbed.

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Love makes you do the wacky.

—Joss Whedon and David Tyron King, “Some Assembly Required,” Buffy The Vampire Slayer, 22 September 1997

We all know that people in love sometimes act insane, and that is the concept behind the modern use of the word moonstruck. Someone who is moonstruck is out of their mind with love. But this was not always the case; the word originally simply referred to insanity. The idea that the phases of the moon could trigger mental illness is an old one—English use of the word lunatic dates to the late thirteenth century—and that’s where the concept of being moonstruck comes from.

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Science fiction is a productive source of neologisms. Sometimes what is envisioned in fiction enters the lexicon before science makes it a reality, and sometimes futuristic and fantastic concepts that can never be real enter the language through science fiction. When we talk of the intersection between science fiction and popular culture, conversation inevitably turns to Star Trek. The original television series ran from 1966–69 and bequeathed us any number of spin-off series, movies, cartoons, and books, but it also left us with an enriched vocabulary. Alongside phasers and warp speed, the TV show gave us the mind-meld.

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kangaroo court

Strangely, the term kangaroo court is not Australian in origin. The term refers to an improperly constituted and illegitimate court, especially one constituted by people who are otherwise outside the law, prisoners, mutineers, etc. What kangaroos have to do with it is not known for certain. There are plenty of guesses, but no strong evidence.

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It is with no lack of irony that a word expressing apathy is one of the hot words of the last decade. That word is meh, an expression of indifference and absence of interest in the topic at hand, a verbal shrug of the shoulders. As of this writing, has some 298 user-supplied definitions of meh. Many of these definitions are duplicative, of course, but the fact that 298 different people took the time to write definitions and record examples of its use is indicative of the fervor that meh generates.

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Internet Quotes: Camus on Autumn

[This is the first in what will be an irregular series of posts on various quotations posted to the internet. The internet is a wonderful source of information, but when it comes to quotations it is abysmal. I’ll lay good money down, giving odds, that any given quotation taken from the internet is defective in some way. ]

A friend of mine posted a picture of some autumn leaves to her Facebook feed today, and inscribed on the picture was:

Autumn is a second spring, when every leaf is a flower.
—Albert Camus

A nice sentiment, a bit treacly for my taste, but nice nonetheless. But alarms bells went off in my brain when I saw the quotation was ascribed to Camus. The sentiment didn’t sound like the dark and gloomy writer that I was familiar with. But hey, people write all sorts of different things, and maybe Albert penned this in one of his more manic moments.

So I set out to look it up. 

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Vegetarians don’t eat meat, at least they don’t nowadays. But had there been vegetarians a millennium ago, they would have. For, you see, meat did not always mean the flesh of animals. In Old English, the word mete meant simply “food.” From the Old English translation of Bede’s Ecclesiastical History (5.4):

he in his hus eode ך mete þigde
(he went into his house and accepted meat).

Bede’s original Latin has “ieiunium soluere” (break his fast).

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March has many different meanings; the Oxford English Dictionary has six different entries for march as a noun and two as a verb. But the sense considered here is the one of walking or moving forward.

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