English Word Series: Sweet

The word ‘sweet’ can be traced back to the Old English ‘swete’, an adjective that meant, ‘pleasing to the senses, mind or feelings’. The word can be traced back to its Proto Indo European origins by ‘*swad’ (Sanskrit sv?du) which makes the word over five thousand years old.

For over 1500 years the word ‘sweet’ has been used to describe the sense of taste in the English language. For a taste to be ‘sweet’ it is in direct opposition to bitter and sour tastes, ‘having or designating the pleasant flavour characteristic of sugar, honey, and many ripe fruits’. ‘Sweet food’ also meant any fresh food that wasn’t acidic through fermentation. Some foods that have incorporated sweet as their name include ‘sweetbread’ (1565- the ‘bread’ suffix coming from the Old English ‘br?d’ meaning ‘flesh’), ‘sweet and sour’ cooking (1723- which did not originally describe oriental food), and ‘sweet’ or ‘candy drop’ (1851-which was originally termed ‘sweetie’).

‘Sweet’ has been used to describe all the other human senses also. A pleasant smell such as roses or perfume from Old English could be termed as ‘sweet’, and by the late 18th century for someone to smell ‘sweet’ meant that they were perfumed or scented. ‘Sweet’ could also describe melodious and harmonious sound and by the early 20th century, a ‘sweet sound’ (especially in jazz) meant playing at a steady tempo without improvisation. By late Middle English the weather could be described as ‘sweet’ if it was considered warm or mild. And finally, ‘sweet’ was adopted in the middle of the 17th century by artists to describe delicate and soft brush strokes.

The adjective ‘sweet’ has always had the added connotations of being, ‘pleasing, gratifying, agreeable, and delightful’. ‘Sweet’ was used as a noun to mean ‘beloved one’ from 1300, as something dearly loved or prized, ‘Thy life to me is sweet’ (1590), and from the early 19th century to describe one’s own, ‘sweet self, sweet time’. From the late 19th century, ‘sweet’ could be used to describe something that was easily managed or dealt with, ‘the engine is more responsive and sweet than its predecessor’. ‘Sweet’ has been adopted in Australian and New Zealand slang from the late 19th century to mean that everything is fine and in order, ‘She’s sweet’. In the early 20th century ‘sweet’ was adopted as an intensive in phrases meaning nothing at all, ‘sweet nothing’, as well as a parting in the late evening, ‘sweet dreams’.