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From Busy to Business: Exploring 'Semantic Antics'

In the 13th century, a "silly" person was someone who was blessed. And a "deer" was any four-legged land animal.

But by the late 1500s, silly people had declined to fools, and hunters long knew that deer were mammals whose heads would be prized on their walls.

In his new book, Semantic Antics: How and Why Words Change Meaning, Sol Steinmetz traces the origin of these words — and many others — using historical, cultural and literary anecdotes. Steinmetz, a lexicographer and dictionary editor, spent years following the evolution of words. Semantic Antics delves into how even the most basic words — including balloon, hobby and kid — came to their present-day meanings.

Steinmetz says words develop in a number of ways: their meanings can narrow or broaden, or be distorted, upgraded or extended. "Litter," for example, meant "bed" in the 1300s, but over the years, it narrowed to mean bedding for animals. And Steinmetz says "business" used to refer to being busy, but it gradually broadened to encompass many kinds of occupations.

Susan Stamberg spoke with Steinmetz about some of the strange ways the English language has evolved over the centuries.

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