Q: I’ve always thought “mean-spirited” meant petty or selfish. Increasingly, I’ve seen it used to mean nasty. Is this an American usage?
A: The phrase “mean-spirited” is defined variously as malicious, small-minded, selfish, inconsiderate, and so on in standard American and British dictionaries.
We don’t see a significant difference in the way the dictionaries treat the phrase, though the adjective “mean” by itself tends to be nastier in the US references.
The 10 standard dictionaries we regularly consult (five American and five British) define “mean” variously as selfish, petty, small-minded, unkind, unpleasant, spiteful, cruel, malicious, violent, offensive, nasty, troublesome, etc. US dictionaries are more likely to use the harsher definitions, though some UK dictionaries include them too.
An essay on Merriam-Webster’s website (“How ‘Mean’ Became Nasty”) notes that the nasty sense of “mean” has “become so widespread in American English” that it is “without question the most frequently used today.”
We suspect that the nastiness of “mean” in the US is influencing the way Americans use “mean-spirited.” However, the “nasty” sense of the phrase hasn’t yet made its way into definitions of “mean-spirited” in US dictionaries.
Interestingly, the selfish, nasty, and violent senses of “mean” all showed up around the same time in the 19th century, according to citations in the Oxford English Dictionary. And all three appeared first in American English.
Etymologically, there are three distinct words spelled “mean” in English: (1) a verb with the sense of intend or signify; (2) an adjective or noun for a mathematical average as well as average people or things; (3) the adjective you’re asking about, the one with all those senses mentioned earlier.
We’ll limit ourselves here to “mean” #3. We’ll get to current usage in a while, but let’s look first at how the adjective arrived at its modern senses.
When the adjective “mean” first appeared in early Old English writing (spelled gemæne), it meant minor, lesser, or inferior, and was used to describe a minor rank in the ecclesiastical hierarchy.
The earliest example in the Oxford English Dictionary is from the statutes of a religious guild, or prayer group, in medieval Exeter:
“And se mæssepreost a singe twa mæssan … & ælc gemænes hades broður twegen salteras sealma” (“and let the mass priest sing two masses … and every brother of mean condition two psalters of psalms”). From Diplomatarium Anglicum Ævi Saxonici, a collection of charters dated from as far back as the 6th-century reign of King Æthelbert of Kent, edited by Benjamin Thorpe (1865).
An aphetic form of the adjective (that is, minus the first syllable) showed up later in Old English as mæne, and referred to things held in common or jointly. The first OED citation is from an Anglo-Saxon land charter:
“Swa forð andlangas þæs broces forð þæt hit cymð to hryxies mæne weig” (“so forth along that it comes to the island of rushes held in mean way”). From Charters of Burton Abbey, published by Peter Hayes Sawyer (1979).
In Middle English, the senses of inferior and common broadened, perhaps influenced by the disparaging use of average in “mean” #2 above, according to the OED. As a result, “mean” came to describe people of inferior social status, ability, or education, as well as things considered inferior, second-rate, or contemptible. Here are some Oxford examples:
“Þe grete … in þe gaiest wise, & menere men as þei miȝt” (“the great … in their most ornate fashion, and the mean [common] men as they might be”). From William of Palerne (circa 1350), an English translation of a French romance.
“Þe comyn lettre of Mathew is ful skars, for mene men myȝte vnderstonde” (“the Gospel of Matthew is one that mean [unlearned] men might scarcely understand”). From John Trevisa’s translation, dated sometime before 1387, of Ranulf Higden’s Polychronicon, a Latin work of history and theology.
“ ‘Suffre hem lyue,’ he seyde, ‘and lete hem ete with hogges, / Or elles benes and bren ybaken togideres, / Or elles melke and mene ale’ ” (“ ‘Suffer them to live,’ he said, ‘and let them eat with hogs, / Or else beans and bran baked together, / Or else milk and mean [second-rate] beer’ ”). From Piers Plowman (circa 1378), by William Langland.
(In the last citation, which we’ve expanded, Piers is referring to shirkers who would rather sing and drink ale than plow. Beans and bran were fed to pigs, and poor people sometimes added beans to grain when not enough grain was available for baking bread.)
In the 17th century, according to the OED, the adjective turned even more negative and came to describe someone “lacking moral dignity, ignoble; small-minded.” The dictionary’s first citation, which we’ll expand here, warns that those in high positions are in danger of acting immorally and of despising the immorality of less important people:
“as a throne exposes those that sit on it to peculiar temptations to vice, so …. the sublimity of such a condition would make any soul, that is not very mean, despise many mean things, that too often prevail upon inferiour persons.” From Occasional Reflections Upon Several Subjects (1665), by the Anglo-Irish natural philosopher Robert Boyle.
As we’ve said above, the selfish, nasty, and vicious senses of “mean” all first appeared around the same time in 19th-century American English, according to OED citations.
The dictionary’s first example for the stingy or miserly sense is from the July 1840 issue of the Southern Literary Messenger. A letter from Salonica, Turkey (now Thessaloniki, Greece), says no one can live in the city without a Jewish agent: “And you may depend it is a trial to Christian patience: for ‘as mean as the Jews of Salonica’ is an Eastern proverb.”
The earliest OED example for the nasty sense appeared a year later: “One [girl] thought me real mean for uttering such super-diabolical sentiments.” From Short Patent Sermons (1841), by Dow, Jr., pseudonym of Elbridge G. Paige. The book is a collection of Paige’s columns for the Sunday Mercury in New York.
The first Oxford citation for the vicious sense refers to an uncontrollable horse: “He’s a monstrous mean horse, gentlemen.” From Georgia Scenes, Characters, Incidents, &c., in the First Half Century of the Republic (1835), by Augustus Baldwin Longstreet.
And here’s the dictionary’s earliest example in which “mean” is used for vicious people: “He [a cowboy] gets all-fired mean sometimes when he’s full.” From Saddle and Mocassin (1887), by Francis Francis Jr.
Getting back to the phrase “mean-spirited,” the OED’s earliest example, which we’ve expanded here, uses it to mean half-hearted—in this case, not fully committed to living a Christian life:
“Away then with that mean spirited Religion which thus lessens and confines our Happiness; let us unfold our Hands, and pluck them out of our Bosoms, and encourage our selves in a vigorous Pursuit of an excellent Piety.” From Practical Discourses Upon the Parables of Our Saviour (1694), by Francis Bragge, a vicar in Hertfordshire in southern England.
The next OED citation, which we’ve also expanded, uses “mean-spirited” in the sense of impudent or ill-mannered: “I mentioned to him one day that I was of the opinion he very seldom spoke the truth. What do you think he did? he kissed my hand! Impertinent, meanspirited wretch!” From a letter written on Jan. 3, 1825, by Jane Baillie Welsh to Thomas Carlyle. (They were married in 1826.)
The dictionary doesn’t have any examples for “mean-spirited” used in the sense you’re asking about (ungenerous, petty or selfish), but we’ve found many in searches of digitized books, including this one from the early 18th century:
“That these of Publick Employments should be of publick Spirits, it is a shame to be mean Spirited, and taken up with self interest.” From a sermon delivered Nov. 24, 1700, by John Hamilton, an Edinburgh clergyman.
The use of “mean-spirited” for nasty appears to have shown up in the late 20th century. The earliest example we’ve found refers to the news media:
“The watchdog role of the free press can often appear as mean-spirited. How do the government and public protect themselves from its excesses?” From “The Role of the Media in a Democracy,” an article by George A. Krimsky, a former AP editor, published in Issues of Democracy, a journal of the United States Information Agency, February 1997.