Writers, politicians, parents, teachers – most people, come to think of it – get their knickers in a knot about which ones to use. But the more we chase words, the more they skip off round the corner sticking out their tongues, like toddlers escaping bath time. Because they’re not set in stone but mutate and evolve like viruses, it’s a wonder we know what we mean at all.
Take the word ‘black’. Think of the trouble it’s caused through history by its association with night, wickedness, dirt, bad luck, racism etc. It’s the opposite of white – purity, cleanliness, Snow White supremacy.
Except that it’s not.
In Middle English (spoken from 1100 to about 1500) it’s not clear whether blac, blak and blacke meant dark or light. They come from a Germanic word for ‘burnt,’ which could mean bright and shiny like flames … or dark like soot.
Modern English went for the dark version. But the French lightened it up with an ‘n’ to make ‘blanc’, meaning white. The English then nicked it back to make ‘blank’.
And if that leaves you blank, what about ‘up’ and ‘down’? The South Downs are hills in southern England. And hills go … up.
Confused? Try writing a whole sentence.