Tuesday, June 9, 2015

One word, multiple connotations

In the book Through the Looking Glass , the character Humpty Dumpty has a unique take on language: ‘When I use a word,’ he says, ‘it means just what I choose it to mean.’ He then goes on to use the word ‘glory’ to mean ‘there’s a nice knock-down argument for you!’ It is easy to think that Humpty Dumpty’s take on language is extreme, but it turns out that is exactly what we do with words anyway. We commonly take simple words and assign all kinds of meanings to them. A great example of this phenomenon is the word ‘pretty.’ Let us read Nilesh Jahagirdar's research on the word 'pretty.


Various meanings of ‘pretty’

The most common meaning of the word — and the only one that most people associate the word with — relates to appearance. Someone who is pretty is someone who is pleasing and attractive in some way. For example: ‘As the little girl dressed up for her birthday party, she looked really pretty.’ But the word can also have other meanings, depending on the context.

‘Pretty’ can also mean ‘bad or terrible.’ For example, referring to a particularly complicated situation, you might use expressions like ‘a pretty mess to be in,’ or ‘a pretty predicament.’ In addition, ‘pretty’ can also refer to size. Used in this sense, ‘pretty’ means ‘considerable in size,’ ‘big,’ or ‘quite large.’ For example: ‘He had been struggling with his finances for some time but a lottery ticket suddenly won him a pretty fortune.’

Or here is another example: ‘I bought the new TV on sale, but it still cost me a pretty penny.’ There are a few more meanings of ‘pretty,’ but we will consider one more quickly. As an adverb, ‘pretty’ can be used as a qualifier referring to the degree or extent of something. For example: ‘I may not have topped the class, but I was a pretty good student back in school.’ Also: ‘Yesterday was a warm day, but it is pretty cold today.’

As you can see, even a word as common and simple as ‘pretty’ has a number of different meanings, and can be used in a variety of contexts. In addition to its various meanings, ‘pretty’ of course combines with other words to give us a number of useful idioms. Let us discuss one of them here.
Sitting pretty

When someone is ‘sitting pretty,’ they are in an advantageous situation, or well to-do and successful. For example: ‘Many of my friends were struggling after college, but I had just started my first job, so I was sitting pretty.’ Similarly: ‘Most people struggled as the country went into a depression after the war, but the rich landowners were all sitting pretty.’

This article was originally posted in The Hindu