My Word: Mess

A meal or a mess?: The meaning of mess has gone through a number of changes.
A meal or a mess?: The meaning of mess has gone through a number of changes.

When I was a little boy in South Cardiff, the lasting impression I had was of my mother telling me to clean up the mess.

I would then do as little as was necessary to satisfy her and then I would go out to play.

As I grew older, I often wondered what a meal had to do with a mess.

My mother’s lemon butter sandwiches were okay, nothing special but okay. They certainly weren‘t a mess, not to my way of thinking, anyway.

But I was reading one of Peter Fitzsimons’ latest books the other day and he mentioned mess kits. It revived my thinking about mess. Maybe Peter Fitzsimons gets in the same trouble I was in. Melbourne has a Mess Hall. Probably so do other places.

My big dictionary has three pages on the word mess.

Mentions go right back to the year 1300. I won’t tell you what was said because I can‘t understand it. But in 1330 was mention of “his first mess”.

... I feel that mess is coming around to mean a disorganised state instead of a meal. It will remain in its place in the military...

The big dictionary also defines mess as in north America “a quantity or number of something” such as in “a large mess or early potatoes” or a mess of wolves.

It also defines a haul of fish in the United States.

In the big dictionary a meal was the first meaning of mess. It developed onto an untidy jumble, or a mess, in the 19th century.

Mess came from the Latin word missus, “course of a meal”.

This was borrowed into old French as mes, and then into old English as mess, which seemed to mean a mixture. 

In the 19th century it came to mean a mixture of food and somehow came to mean a mess.

Around this time it came to refer to a group of people who came together to eat. This has been extended to this day in such expressions as mess hall and officers’ mess.

My Macquarie in 13 definitions of mess, starts with “a dirty or untidy condition”, but then it goes into a difficult situation before it gets around to a group of people who eat together.

The Heinemann talks about “a dirty, untidy or confused condition” before it mentions an officers’ mess.

Collins talks about “an untidy state”. In five definitions, it doesn’t mention a meal, not that I could find anyway. It mentions mess about, mess up and mess with.

Cambridge mentions ”dirty or untidy” as its first definition.

Reader’s Digest relates a mess of clothes and says that mess originally meant a meal. 

Merriam Webster mentioned “a quantity of food” and a group of persons who took their meals together as a unit before it mentioned a disorganised state.

But I feel that mess is coming around to mean a disorganised state instead of a meal. It will remain in its place in the military, but that is where it will stay.

A mess can also mean to supply with a meal.

lauriebarber.com; lbword@midcoast.com.au