Wood on Words: You'll "presently" be reading Barry Wood's column.
Language changes with the times, and some words don't survive.
With every advance in technology or new direction in civilization, some terms become obsolete. Others adapt with new meanings or new spellings, but some just disappear.
And then there are those that become endangered just because so many people misuse them that their usefulness becomes questionable. This is about three of those words, whose only crime is that they sound as if they should mean something that they don't.
The most common of the three is "presently." Many people now use it to mean "now," because most of it is "present."
In Shakespeare's time, according to Bryan A. Garner in "Garner's Modern American Usage," it meant "immediately." If you asked for something presently, you expected it right away.
Soon, though, those expectations had been lowered to "after a short time," or "soon."
And that's what it meant for all those years until people started substituting it for "now" because it sounded more impressive. Whenever "presently" appears these days, its user usually intends it to mean "now" -- even though it ought to mean "soon."
The ideal solution is to give "presently" a dignified retirement party, with lots of presents, and resolve to use "soon" when we mean soon and "now" when we mean now.
Two other words that may be misused into obscurity are "noisome" and "fulsome."
The former can be found in sentences where it's supposed to mean "raucous" or "exceedingly noisy." It doesn't.
The "noise" in "noisome" comes from "annoy." Of course, noise certainly can be annoying, but "noisome" actually means either "injurious to health; harmful" or "having a bad odor; foul-smelling."
As for "fulsome," its evolution has been influenced as much by "foul" as by "full." It means "disgusting or offensive," especially in referring to something that's excessive or insincere, as in "fulsome praise."
According to Webster's New World College Dictionary, its usage to mean "full, ample, abundant" is a resurrection of its original sense, which has been considered obsolete since the 16th century.
Not surprisingly, many experts object to this usage, but sometimes the old ways die hard.
What does "handsome" have to do with "hand"? This word, which now means "good-looking" or "large, impressive," as in a "handsome sum," originally meant "convenient" or "easily handled." That's the "hand" connection.
"Handsome" has been known to be applied as a compliment to women as well as men, although "beautiful," when referring to people, is almost exclusively applied to females.
"Beautiful" traces its origin through the French "beau" and "bel" to the Latin "bellus," all meaning "pretty." In French, "beau" as a noun also meant "a dandy," a use adopted for a while in English, although now labeled "archaic." It's also an old-fashioned word for "the sweetheart or courter of a woman or girl."
So although men generally aren't considered beautiful, some of them have been beaus.
By the way, the "handsome" homonym "hansom" is a type of horse-drawn carriage often seen in movies and TV shows set in the Victorian era. It was named for its designer, J.A. Hansom, an English architect and inventor.
Webster's doesn't comment on whether Hansom was also considered handsome.
Barry Wood is a senior copy editor for the Register Star. Contact him at email@example.com or write to Wood on Words, Rockford Register Star, 99 E. State St., Rockford, IL 61104.