What “Mean” Means

By Mark Nichol

The verb mean, in the senses of “destine” “direct,” “intend,” and “signify,” is from the Old English phrase mae nan. To say that someone “means business” signifies that he or she is earnestly serious about something; to say that someone “means well” means that the person has good intentions. (One is said to be well-meaning when his or her intentions are good; the person’s actions are said to be well-meant.)

Mean has multiple adjectival meanings. Used to convey the ideas of “base” or “contemptible,” “petty” or “stingy,” or “malicious” or “troublesome,” it is from the Old English phrase gemae ne, meaning “common.” It also has the less negative senses of “ashamed,” “dull,” and “humble” and actually has a positive connotation as a slang synonym for “effective” or “excellent” in references to having admirable skills, as in “He plays a mean saxophone.” (This may derive from a confusion with the idiom “no mean” followed by a noun or noun phrase, as in “He’s no mean poker player,” where “no mean” means “not average” or “not inferior.) The expression “lean and mean” likely derives from the notion of aggressive competitiveness. The adverb meanly means “in a humble, inferior, or ungenerous manner.”

The sense of mean as a synonym for “average,” “intermediate,” or “midway” is ultimately from the Latin term medianus (by way of Anglo-French and Middle English), which is also the source of median. (Mesne, borrowed with an alteration in spelling from Anglo-French, means “intermediate” or “intervening” but is used only in legal contexts.)

As a noun, mean can refer to something intermediate (as in the mathematical sense), something helpful (as in the phrase “means to an end”), or resources (as in the sense of having the means to accomplish something). Related idioms include “by all means” (“certainly”), “by means of” (“through the use of”), and “by no means” (“not at all”).

The synonymic compounds meantime and meanwhile both derive from the “intermediate” sense of mean, while mean-spirited alludes to the sense of “petty.” (The slang term meanie, also spelled meany, refers to a person who is cruel; this usage is considered dated, however, and is now used only in a jocular sense.) To demean, meanwhile, is to debase or put down, while meanness can refer to poverty, stinginess, or weakness.

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