The Many Meanings of Mean

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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 moon
mean solar day
mean time

mean point of impact

mean diameter
mean distance
mean motion
mean temperature
mean-value theorem

mean free path

mean deviation
mean square

mean line

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.”

stingy, miserly:
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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10 thoughts on “The Many Meanings of Mean”

  1. Great post! I think this will help a lot. I like it when you link the meanings to their origins.

    One correction is worth mentioning. In math, mean refers to the average, not to the median. (They actually are different!) A simple problem will illustrate the difference:

    Donny’s three children went on an Easter Egg Hunt. Alfie’s basket has one egg. Bibi’s basket has two. Cecil’s basket has seven.

    The median value is the middle value, two.
    The mean value is the average value, (1+2+7)/3 = 5.

    Sometimes the mean value and the middle value are the same. For example, suppose the three baskets had one, three, and five chocolate bunnies. Both the mean (average) and the median (middle) numbers of chocolate bunnies would be three.


    There’s one more sense of ‘mean’ that agrees with both origins. In Greenwich Mean Time, it has acquired the sense of ‘standard’ or ‘universal’.

  2. “Mean” is also an essential verb in English – as well as being a noun and an adjective.

    What did you mean by leaving out all of the verbs?

    In mathematics, physics, and engineering, there is also the “root-mean-square” value of something – often abbreviated the “r.m.s. value”. In this case, the verb “mean” just means to take the average value of a number of measurements as part of the procedure of finding the r.m.s. value.

    R.m.s. values are used all the time in electrical engineering, in theromodynamics, in gas dynamics, and in statistics.

  3. “Don’t make me ride a mean horse” can also MEAN “Don’t make me ride a mediocre horse” or “Don’t make me ride an ordinary horse.”

    In other words, give me a horse that is spry, alert, intelligent, and strong – all the properties of a good horse, such as “Silver”, who was ridden by The Lone Ranger, or “Traveler”, who was ridden by Robert E. Lee. George Washington always had good horses, and George was known as one of the best horsemen in America, both back before the Revolution and then for many years thereafter.

    Washington also had a servant who was just as good a horseman as he was, and they enjoyed going out for rides together, simply for relaxation at times because Washington had so many responsibilities.

  4. In statistics, the mean and the median are different things. The mean is more commonly called the average, and is the sum of a sample, divided by the number in the sample.

    The median is the middle number in a sample when arranged in ascending order. Take this sequence:

    2, 8, 20, 70, 100

    The median is 20: the middle number in the sequence

    The mean (or average) is 40: the sum (200) divided by the number of items in the sequence (5). 200/5 = 40

    Where the mean is significantly higher (or lower) than the mean, we say the sample is skewed. Statisticians recognise median as a better representation of the centre of the sample than mean.

  5. I think connotatively mean has 3 meanings. And at least 2, as the article says, are of different etymology. It can denote the average, or middle. It can denote nastiness or malevolence of spirit, or it can mean this (intention). The others seem like fairly straightforward extensions rather than new meanings. “You play a mean guitar” I would venture simply means you play an evil or wicked guitar. Like playing a bad piano (as opposed to playing the piano badly. It’s a compliment.) As for the meaning of poor or impoverished, e.g. mean streets or mean existence, that seems like a derivative of the second as well. I always assumed that “mean” streets were nasty and brutal, as opposed to just poor. Thanks for the enlightenment. I guess it conveys the same meaning, mostly: streets that are unpleasant and not nice.

    DAW: Thank you for not calling him Traveller. He was, after all, an American horse.

  6. Yes, of course, Lee’s horse was “Traveler”, as always in American English. Furthermore:

    a traveling wave (as opposed to a standing wave in physics),
    “I’m a Traveling Man” – the title of a noteworthy American song,
    “I traveled U.S. Highway 50 from Ocean City, Maryland, to Sacramento.” (U.S. 80 used to travel all the way to San Francisco, but U.S. 80 was stopped in Sacramento after Interstate 80 was built on top of it.)
    Four hungry travelers knocked on my door yesterday evening.
    The traveling wave tube (TWT), the name of an important electronic device in most of the technological world, considering the large English-speaking populations of the United States and Canada.
    It might be called a traveling wave tube in Australia and New Zealand, too, or do they have “valves”?

  7. There is an interesting twist to the meaning of the median of a set that contains an even number of numbers. That might be best shown by an example. Suppose that the set of numbers is the following:
    S = {1, 3, 5, 7, 9, 11}.
    By definition, the median value of S is med = (5 + 7)/2 = 6, which is not even a number in the set. In other words, you take the two members that are closest to the “middle” and take the average of them.
    The same thing applies to sets like S2 = {1, 3, 5, 10, 25, 50 }
    The median value of S2 is med2 = (5 + 10)/2 = 7.5, which isn’t even an integer, even though S2 contains all integers.

    These calculations of medians might seem to be perculiar, but the important thing is that in the long run, they have been found to be useful. That is the crucial point.

  8. Ooops: I accidentally typed “U.S. 80” in the above when I meant “U.S. 50”. Mea culpa. D.A.W.

  9. In statistics, there are three important descriptions of the distribution of the numbers (in a random variable) and they are called the mean, the median, and the “mode”. I will leave “mode” for you to look up.

    There is an important fact about these three (worth mentioning) for variables that have either a uniform or a Gaussian (or “normal”) distribution. The latter is the familiar “bell-shaped curve”.
    For either one of these very common distributions, with a large number of elements in the set: the mean = the median = the mode.

    There are some other distributions that have his property, too, but this is not always true. This can be confusing to common people who are not familiar with distributions that are neither Gaussian nor uniform.

    The word “Gaussian” is widely used by engineers, physicists, and lots of statisticians, but in schools of business or education, they often teach the word “normal”, instead. The important point is that Gaussian and normal are really the same thing in this context.

    In engineering, physics, and mathematics, there is another use of the word “normal” that doesn’t have anything to do with probability and statistics. The word “normal” is used in vector analysis.

  10. Translating from one language to another is so difficult. I taught English in Brazil for a while. Students often asked how one could tell the difference between words that sounded or were spelled the same or both. I gave them an example of a Portuguese word that did the same. For example: “Manga” means sleeve, but it was also a word that described a sort of wick on a kerosene lantern. (I lived in the interior where one used kerosene lanterns when the town’s generator wasn’t running.) To make things even more confusing, when I had worked at a Girl Scout camp, we had lanterns like that and the same item was called (in English) a “mantel” which is also a shelf over a fireplace or perhaps it was a “mantle” which can also be a sleeveless cloak or shawl, whereas in Portuguese “manga” means sleeve, therefore describing something with sleeves, not without.

    I certainly admire anyone who speaks several languages. It’s difficult enough to get one right. Learning the subtleties of another is difficult and confusing. The last time I was in Brazil, I stayed with a friend whose husband spoke fluent Romanian, Italian, French, German, Spanish, English, and Portuguese. How he ever kept them all straight is beyond me.

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