Mean originally meant “in common.” If only that actually described US healthcare.
Despite previously praising the House Republican healthcare bill as a “great plan” in a public ceremony in May, Donald Trump told senators this week that the bill was “mean, mean, mean.” Where does this common little word mean come from?
Shortened from the Old English gemæne, mean originally meant “possessed jointly” and “held in common.” Two farmers, for instance, might own a field in mean. In the 1300s, though, English had borrowed another mean, “intermediate,” via the Old French meien and Latin mediānus (middle) before it. The “median” mean appears to have shifted the older mean, aided by negative associations of “commonness,” towards a sense of “inferior” or “low in quality or grade.”
Mean’s “second-rateness” then shaded towards “petty” and “undignified” in the 1400s, “shabby” and “small-minded” in the 1600s. Come the 1840s, British English was using mean for “stingy” while American English was using it for “vicious” (mean drunk) or its now familiar “cruel,” as Trump so described the healthcare bill.
Like bad, sick, or wicked, slang and colloquial speech often flip negative words. So, too, with mean in early 1900s American speech, when mean starting expressing something “very good,” e.g., She plays a mean guitar. The construction, no mean —, to signify something worthy (no mean feat) is much older, attested in the 1580s.
By all “means”
As for the deeper origins of the Old English gemæne, etymologists root it in the Proto-Germanic *ga-mainiz, also “possessed jointly.” The *ga- signifies “together,” later the ge- and y- prefix in English. The *mainiz develops out of the Proto-Indo-European *mei-, “to change,” which we’ve seen here in the immigration. Something mean, then, is literally “exchanged together,” and *ga-mainiz thus appears to correspond to the Latin commūnis, meaning and source of “common.”
The verb mean, “to intend,” and its derivative, so important to this blog, meaning also have Germanic roots. Some scholars think it is related to the Indo-European base for mind. Others, like the Oxford English Dictionary, have even suggested its ultimate source is that same Indo-European *mei-, with the “intentional” mean having an original sense of “to express opinions alternately or by turns.”
“To express opinions alternately”: Now that sounds familiar. The bill is great. The bill is mean. Perhaps there is some mean Trump means? Or perhaps we should just take a cue from the etymology of mean—healthcare should be “possessed jointly,” by all.