fix (v. late 14th century, “set [one’s eyes or mind] on something”, probably from Old French verb fixer, from fixe “fixed”)

Some words move about between us without gathering many new meanings, while others seem more like snowballs. I hear and use the word “fix” many times a week but it’s a word that depends heavily on context. I was sure that when Robin Van Persie was sent off in a game against Barcelona, it was a fix (a fiddle). When I got lost while driving in London, I was in a fix (a muddle). I couldn’t fix the leak in the shower (mend), but I fixed a time for meeting colleagues (arranged).

My son fixed a flower on his hat (attached). I was on a bus when the driver was being abused by a passenger so he fixed him (got physical control over him). Your hair’s a mess, you should fix it (make it tidy or nice). The interest rate is fixed (not variable). You noticed that I always have to have coffee at 4.30; why was I so fixed (habitual, obsessive)? I don’t think you’ll stand a chance with him, he’s already fixed (in a relationship). If you’re not too fixed (busy), you’ll be able to think of other uses of “fix”. This subtle network of meanings is something that native speakers pick up without being given an instruction manual – not so easy for adult learners of English.

Though it has the short, sharp sound that we often think of as “Anglo-Saxon”, it is in fact an Old French word, so we might imagine Norman soldiers fixing on their armour, and Roman centurions doing likewise with the word’s predecessor, “figere”. The Frenchness of the word reminds me of that phrase idée fixe, meaning a pathological monomania. I thought it had the ring of Freud but it seems to have been around since at least 1812, though I’ve heard it used to mean not much more than an overly keen interest.

With the arrangements for sending in this article being fixed prior to 7 May, I am unable to comment on whether I think the UK’s general election was a fix, whether this or that media appearance fixed it for the victors or indeed whether this or that leader could or could not fix up a coalition.