In History, Poetry, Words

Justice with scales

There aren’t many TV ads that move me these days, other than to throw a brick at the telly, of course, but one that always makes me smile is Snoop Dogg’s Just Eat commercial. For the first time possibly since mash got Smash, here’s an ad that’s got style, humour and poetry.

Private jet in the night sky
My man hand glide by with my fried rice, right
What could you not love
‘Bout a slice on the side of the hot tub?

What indeed! But I’m not here to talk about advertising. As you know, cynical self-promotion has no place in this blog. I’m just thinking about the word ‘just’.

Here’s a word that can mean ‘right’, yet we also say “just right”; it can mean ‘only’ but we also say “only just”; it can mean ‘fair’ but then we cry it’s “just not fair”. And all these uses have different meanings. Don’t you just love it?

Trying to unravel the various meanings of ‘just’ is akin to walking into the labyrinth armed with a ball of wool, swinging a flagon of Minotaur pheromones. It won’t end well, I just know it, but let’s have a go anyway, just for fun.

Back in the 14th century, about half of England’s population was wiped out by two major disasters: the Black Death and the Great Famine. You wouldn’t imagine there was much time for wordplay, yet this was a time when so many words evolved. Maybe it was their way of enforcing social distancing. Just was just one of them.

It was originally about justice, fairness, moral equity and righteousness. ‘Just causes’ popped up everywhere. This sense of right and properness saw the word become used to express precision – ‘just so’. So now ‘just’ was an adverb as well as an adjective. So far so good.

The problem with plagues and great famines is they breed cynicism and people have a tendency to twist your words. Thus, from meaning ‘exactly’, as in ‘just what I always wanted’, just took a series of James Brown-style shimmies to mean ‘with no room to spare’, as in ‘only just’, and then ‘only’, as in ‘give me just a little more time’, ‘just the two of us’ and ‘I just called’.

And that’s how soul music was born.

Of course, ‘I just called’ could mean ‘I only called’ or ‘I called just now’. Is that the sound of hooves? Just when you think you’ve unravelled the word, another meaning pops up out of nowhere. I’d love to explore this labyrinth further but I just noticed the time.

Did somebody say, “J-U-S-T S-T-O-P…”

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