Now that’s a segue.

Dear Word Detective: Do you know the etymology of the word “beguile”? — Matt.

I sure do. Next question. Wait, don’t go. You get ten points for spelling “etymology” correctly. It drives me slightly nuts to be referred to as an “entomologist,” which is a scientist who studies insects (from the Greek “entomon,” insect). The study of word origins is “etymology,” from the Greek “etymon” (true sense) plus “logos” (word). The word “etymology” actually reflects the assumption, fairly widespread at one time, that the “original” or earliest meaning of a word is its “true” meaning. That theory is itself quite old but, ironically, not even close to being true. Words change their meanings over time, sometimes radically, and that “oldest equals truest” theory is now known as “the etymological fallacy.”

“Beguile” is a good example of how a word can change over time, dropping older meanings from common use and adding new senses so different from the original meaning that we are often surprised when we delve into the word’s origins. Today we most often use “beguile” as a loose synonym of “charm,” either describing personal attributes (as in “She had a beguiling smile”) or other things we find, for one reason or another, very appealing (“Many first-time home buyers were beguiled by what seemed like impossibly low mortgage rates”). If there’s a semantic difference between “charm” and “beguile,” it’s the faint premonition that what we find “beguiling” may not turn out as well as we’d hoped.

That premonition turns out to be justified by the roots and original meaning of “beguile.” When it first appeared in the 13th century, “beguile” meant “to delude, deceive or trick” with “guile,” which meant (and still does) “deceitful cunning, clever dishonesty.” The roots of “guile,” interestingly, lie in the Old French word “guile,” which also seems to have given us “wile,” most often used in the plural form “wiles,” originally meaning “trickery or deceitful schemes.” In modern usage, however, “wiles” are usually simply innocent artifice, often in the service of romance (“Lady Tippins’s winning wiles are contagious,” Charles Dickens, 1865).

A similar softening of tone has been evident in “beguile” over the centuries, as the raw “cheat and deceive” sense of the word took a back seat to “beguile” being used to mean, as the Oxford English Dictionary puts it, “To win the attention or interest of (any one) by wiling means; to charm, divert, amuse.” By the late 16th century, in fact, “beguile” was being used to mean “to pleasantly divert or amuse so as to make something disagreeable less unpleasant” (“Took a book to beguile the tedious hours,” Washington Irving, 1820). So a word which originally meant “to trick or cheat” came to mean “charm and amuse.”

Interestingly, “amuse” itself followed a similar course, first meaning “to bewilder or puzzle,” then “to deceive or delude,” then “to divert or entertain,” and finally “to entertain with humor and good cheer.”

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