Tag Archives: doubt

Not nice, not silly, actually rather awful

My latest article for The Week is about words with meanings that have travelled quite a bit over the centuries. It’s not that they’ve clouded or warped the senses, but their histories are likely to throw you, or at least leave you in doubt.

11 words whose meanings have completely changed over time



Of all the woods that flowered out,
that bloom most prone to be excrescent
of all that would’s the flower doubt:

indubitably efflorescent
though doubly trimmed, it doubles back
that bloom. Most prone to be excrescent

is the b, that sign of lack,
lost once, now showing debt to Latin
though doubly trimmed. It doubles back

as if to say, “Should we put that in?”
Return to find a sound that we’ve
lost once now. Showing debt to Latin

dubitare: keep or leave
that seed? Weed out? And sow we? No –
return to find a sound: that weave

that fools us still. What steals the show
of all the woulds that flowered out,
that cede? We doubt, and so we know –
of all the woods, the flower: doubt.

A note of explanation: Latin dubitare became Old French duter, which became Middle English duten, which with loss of the last syllable and a change of the main vowel (in the Great Vowel Shift) became doute; at a certain point some scholars fancied that we should show the noble classical roots in our words, so silent etymological letters such as o in people and b in debt and doubt were inserted. “Um… did we really want to lose those? Maybe let’s keep them in after all…”