What a Mess!

I read something interesting in Italian the other day:

Questo libro mi sta piacendo un casino. (I really like this book a lot).

I understood everything except un casino, though the meaning was still clear. Looking up un casino, I saw that the first meaning for it was a mess.

Odd, I thought, it literally means I like this book a mess. That doesn’t really make much sense. But then I thought about it for a few seconds and it made complete sense. We often use mess in English to mean a lot, even if we’re not always really aware of it.

There’s a whole mess of people in there.

He left a whole mess of papers on your desk.

It’s a little informal, but it’s not an odd usage. But of course, it’s not the main way we use it, which is to refer to an untidy situation. Are the two related? Let’s find out…

Yes they are. Mess can be traced all the way back to the Old French mes, meaning a portion of food or course at dinner. And that’s why military cafeterias are known as mess halls: interesting fact no. 1! Mes comes from the Late Latin missus (ha!), meaning course at dinner, and literally meaning a putting or placing. This in turn comes the Latin verb mittere, meaning to put or place (mettere in modern Italian, mettre in modern French).

But how do we get from there to Your room is an absolute mess!? There are just a few more steps. Mess or mess hall became established as a term for a communal eating place in the 16th century, which led to mess being used to refer to mixed food, and then to food for animals, which makes sense, because we’re generally not so careful in ensuring that the different elements of farm animals’ food is kept separate.

And if you can imagine pigs digging into their swill in a trough, you can see how we came to use mess in the way we most commonly do today. I also suspect that words associated with the English word to mix were, well, mixed up in creating this meaning. Misto, for example, is the Italian for mixed, so people may have associated the word mess with the word mix besides the link to the mixed up food of animals.

And to get from this common sense of mess to using it to mean a lot? Well, that’s not so hard to imagine. If your room is messy, you probably have a lot of things thrown around there. If you make a mess, maybe you spill a lot of milk, for example. Messiness and excess go together pretty naturally.

So then, after travelling back to the mess halls of medieval France, we can see that Questo libro mi sta piacendo un casino does make sense. I like that a whole mess!

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