The Amelioration of a Term: Lean

As the Ides of March rolls along, minds turn to Julius Caesar, whose assassination occurred on March 15 in 44 BCE. William Shakespeare tells one of the most popular fictionalized accounts of this famous Roman’s life in his play The Tragedy of Julius Caesar, first performed in 1599. Of its many memorable lines, perhaps the most famous is “Beware the Ides of March.” However, we thought we’d take a look at another notable couple of lines from this play in honor of Julius Caesar: “Yond’ Cassius has a lean and hungry look. / He thinks too much. Such men are dangerous.” The use of the word lean in these lines, in particular, caught our eye thanks to the recent popularity of the phrase lean in (these two types of lean are etymologically unrelated, as it turns out) and took us down an interesting path of reserach.

When word the lean entered English as an adjective around the year 1000, it had relatively neutral connotations—something that was lean was “thin” or “not fat.” The figurative sense of lean meaning “lacking in richness, fullness, or quantity” and “poor” came about a couple hundred years later, and evokes a more negative sense. In the lines above, Shakespeare pairs lean with hungry to give the word a sense of “starving,” perhaps literally for food, though certainly metaphorically for power. These neutral to negative connotations of lean were not uncommon around this time. In a 1513 translation of Virgil’s Æneid, Gavin Douglas uses the phrase “with chekis walxin leyn” to describe the face of an unwell and likely undernourished person. A few hundred years later, the connotations of “starving” persisted. In Lord Alfred Tennyson’s 1842 poem “The Vision of Sin,” he describes a person as: “A grey and gap-tooth’d man as lean as death.” Other senses of lean arose over time, some negative and some neutral. Starting in the 1300s and 1400s, lean could mean “unprofitable” and in the mid-1400s, lean could refer to the non-fatty part of animals or meat. In the 1600s through 1800s, English speakers used lean to refer to periods of time that were, according to the Oxford English Dictionary Online, “characterized by scarcity.”

These earlier senses of lean hit upon neutral or negative connotations, however English today generally looks upon leanness with a positive spin. Having a lean body in the 21st century is a good thing; it means you’re physically fit. Additionally, the concept of a lean recipe refers to more than just a cut of meat these days; a vegetarian recipe could be lean as well, as long as it’s low in fat and healthy. The “lean startup” model, as introduced over the last few years, refers to a small new company that works efficiently and economically with low overhead, and has metaphorically “trimmed the fat” associated with more traditional business models.

Over the years, lean has moved from the realm of starvation, scarcity, and unprofitability to healthiness, prosperity, and economy. That said, many neutral and negative connotations of lean remain in use to this day, especially as the works of beloved authors in the literary canon breath new life into these older senses for each new generation. Can you think of other positive examples of lean?