The Many Meanings of Mean
A reader from Brazil wonders about the word mean:
It has many meanings, such as as evil or significant. Could you help me and others with this word?
It’s not surprising that a non-native English speaker would have difficulty assigning a sense to this word. Apart from many discarded definitions, mean continues to be used in numerous senses.
Ignoring the word’s use as noun or verb, I’ll look at mean as an adjective.
How can mean denote both median and unkind? The word comes from two etymological sources that have jostled together through the years.
From its Anglo-Norman source, mean has the sense of intermediate, middle, middle-sized. Our adverbs meantime and meanwhile come from the sense of something occurring between two points of time or between two events. Later on, from the idea of being “in the middle,” the word took on the sense of ordinary or mediocre.
Scientific language yields these terms with mean in the sense of median:
mean solar day
mean point of impact
mean free path
From its Germanic sources, mean had the meaning “possessed jointly,” “belonging equally to a number of persons.” We all know that a Rolex has more cultural value than a Timex; it was only a matter of time before the meaning of “common ownership” evolved–as did the Anglo-Norman word–to mean ordinary. From ordinary it came to mean “inferior in rank or quality,” “of low social status,” “inferior in learning or ability.” The sense “of low social class” took on the added sense of “characterized by poverty, shabby.”
Everyday speech gives us these uses of mean:
inferior in rank:
“Leave him. He’s but a mean clerk; I demand to speak to his superior.”
of low social status:
Catherine I of Russia came of mean origins.
inferior in ability, learning, perception:
“The truth of my statement ought to be clear to the meanest intelligence!”
characterized by poverty:
“Down these mean streets a man must go…”
vicious or hard to control:
“Don’t make me ride a mean horse.”
“He’s nice enough ordinarily, but he’s a mean drunk.”
Scrooge was mean with his money.
That boy is mean to his little sister.
Finally, as if all these uses weren’t challenging enough, mean can also indicate that something is admirable:
He plays a mean saxophone. (i.e., He plays saxophone extremely well)
He packs a mean punch. (i.e., He hits really hard.)
Winning the Iditarod three years running is no mean achievement. (i.e., Winning…is an admirable achievement.)
For the non-native English speaker, mastering the many meanings of mean is no mean feat.
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