‘Mock’ it up

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Imitation, they say, is the sincerest form of flattery. Mockingbirds are great at it, able to sound like car alarms and even cats. It is, after all, why they are called “mockingbirds.” We find them amusing.

So why then, is it considered an insult when someone “mocks” you?

Because the insult got there first.

“Mock” is among many words that can be negative or positive, depending on how they are used. They are not quite “Janus words,” which have almost opposite meanings (think “sanction,” which can mean to endorse something or to impose a punishment on something). Instead, the words have connotations that carry a subtext, depending on context.

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The first use of “mock” was in the early 15th century, the Oxford English Dictionary says. It came from the Old French moquer, “to tease,” but carried more sinister meanings: “To deceive or impose upon; to delude, befool; to tantalize, disappoint.” The noun form was a “derisive or contemptuous action or utterance; an act of mockery or derision.” This is not making fun of someone; it’s more derogatory than that. (Think of the description of Donald Trump “mocking” a reporter. There’s no fun in that.)

About the time the mockingbird itself was discovered in the New World in the mid-17th century, “mock” was dialed back to be merely an imitation or parody with less hostile intent (though there is no etymological evidence of cause and effect). The insult sense, though, carried through in slang terms: A 1699 dictionary of slang included “A Mock-Romance, that ridicules other Romances, as Don Quixot.

The Australians used “mock” to mean a “jinx” in the early 20th century, the OED says, and shortly thereafter people began to speak of “mock-ups,” replicas or imitations of buildings, statues, etc., mostly intended to be temporary imitations of the final product to be used as a guide. (And yes, journalists, this is also our own “mock-ups,” also called “dummies.”)

Today, to “mock” someone is more often meant as “to make fun of,” mean but not evil.

Which takes us to “fun,” which also started as a negative, debuting in English as a late 17th-century verb, the OED says, to mean “To cheat, hoax; also, to cajole.” The noun soon followed, and gained a more amusing outlook in the mid-18th century: “Diversion, amusement, sport; also, boisterous jocularity or gaiety, drollery.” (The lexicographer Samuel Johnson, though, sniffed at that usage as a “low cant word,” much the way some people today sniff at using “fun” as an adjective. Those are not fun people.)

If you understood the contextual usage of “low cant,” that makes you pretty “sharp.” Or, you may have thought our comment about people who didn’t like “fun” as an adjective was too “sharp.” That’s our third good-bad word of the day.

“Sharp” began as an adjective and verb in the early ninth century, the OED says, and had the meaning of “Well adapted for cutting or piercing; having a keen edge or point.” It quickly became applied figuratively to people: “Acute or penetrating in intellect or perception,” the meaning we still use for someone who’s insightful, perceptive, smart, witty, even.

But “sharp” began to cut both ways. By the 14th century, the OED says, “sharp” became “Cutting in rebuke, invective, or satire; harsh and peremptory in command,” and “severe or merciless.” That satire was embodied in the early 20th-century slang expression “you’re so sharp you’ll cut yourself,” which could be considered both a compliment and a warning. (Or, perhaps, “mockery.”)

The figurative uses of “sharp” are useful, and fun. If you are envious of someone dressed better than you are, you might give a “sharp” look to someone who has a “sharp” look. That could be a two-edged sword, though. After all, as Hamlet said, “there is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.”

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Merrill Perlman managed copy desks across the newsroom at The New York Times, where she worked for 25 years. Follow her on Twitter at @meperl.