Why can't words mean what they used to


By National Seniors Australia Chief Advocate, Ian Henschke

We depend on words to talk to each other based on a common understanding of what the words mean. But history tells us words change meanings, often the opposite of what they originally meant.

The other day I described my young daughter’s messy belongings as ‘paraphernalia’. She looked shocked and asked, ‘what does that mean?’

I said, “your things, belongings, stuff, equipment, gear”. I also tossed in the Australianism “clobber”.

Later I looked up ‘paraphernalia’ just to make sure I was right but got a shock when I read one web definition as the ‘personal property used by a married woman that, although actually owned by her husband and subject to claims by his creditors, becomes her personal property after his death’. In other words, it’s a woman’s clobber which by law was owned by her husband.

As tempted as I was to share this with the daughter, for the sake of family harmony, I thought it best to keep mum. Now there’s a strange use of a common word. For another day perhaps.


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