The word 'critical" has three meanings which are dangerous, important, and disapproving. The purpose of this blog is to examine important or over-looked cultural, political, artistic, or historical issues of our time. Also, this blog is intended to be educational.
Monday, January 23, 2017
The Changed Meanings of Some Words
Examples of Words That Do Not
Mean What They Used To Mean
Language is an ever-changing process. As a result, what a word
means depends not on its origin, but on how speakers of a language
understand it. Over time, words have a way of wandering, and meanings mutate.
If you stuck with older meanings of the following words, you could end up in a
strange land where “naughty” is the same as “nice” and “awesome” means
Ever wonder why “awesome” means excellent but
“awful” means really bad when they both derive from “awe”? In Old English, awe
terror or dread.”From
its use in reference to God the word came to mean“reverential
or respectful fear.”By
the mid-1700s, awe came to mean solemn and reverential wonder, tinged with
fear, inspired by the sublime in nature - such as thunder or a storm at sea.
Originally, awful and awesome were synonymous, but by the early 19th
century, awful absorbed the negative aspects of the emotion and the word
was used to mean frightful or exceedingly bad. The earliest citation in theOxford
English Dictionaryfor awesome meaning “marvelous, great; stunning
or mind-boggling” is from theOfficial PreppyHandbook,
A cheater was originally an officer
appointed to look after the king'sescheats - the land lapsing to the
Crown on the death of the owner intestate without heirs. As William Gurnall
wrote in 1662, “[A] Cheater may pick the purses of ignorant people, by shewing
them something like the Kings Broad Seal, which was indeed his own forgery.”
Mistrust of the king’s cheaters led the word into its current sense: a
dishonest gamester or a swindler.
Egregious now describes something
outstandingly bad or shocking, but it originally meant remarkably good. It
comes from the Latin egregius, meaning "illustrious,
select" - literally, "standing out from the flock," from ex-, "out of," andgreg-, "flock."
Apparently the current meaning arose from ironic use of the original.
Furniture originally meant equipment,
supplies or provisions, in the literal or figurative sense. For example, in a
1570 translation of Euclid’sElements
there is mention of “Great increase & furniture of knowledge.” Gradually,
the meaning narrowed to the current sense: large moveable equipment such as
tables and chairs, used to make a house, office, or other space suitable for
living or working.
Girl once meant a child or young person
of either sex. InThe
Canterbury Tales,Chaucer says of the summoner, “In daunger
hadde he at his owene gise/ The yonge girles of the diocise.” In modern
English, that’s, “In his own power had he, and at ease/ Young people of the
Beginning in Old English, meat meant solid
food (as opposed to drink) or fodder for animals. InAJourney to the Western Islands of Scotland(1775), Samuel Johnson
noted, “Our guides told us, that the horses could not travel all day without
rest or meat.” Generally, the word’s meaning has narrowed to refer only to the
flesh of mammals, and in some regions, only pork or beef, but some Scottish
dialects retain the older meaning of any kind of food.
In the 1300s, naughty people had naught
(nothing); they were poor or needy. By the 1400s, the meaning shifted from
having nothing to being worth nothing, being morally bad or wicked. It could
refer to a licentious, promiscuous or sexually provocative person, or someone
guilty of other improper behavior. In Sermons preached upon
Several Occasions (1678), Isaac Barrow speaks of
“a most vile, flagitious man, a sorry and naughty Governour as could be.” But
in the same century, “naughty” also had a gentler meaning, especially as
applied to children: mischievous, disobedient, badly behaved.
A few centuries ago if a gentleman called a lady
“nice,” she might not know whether to flutter her fan or slap his face. Nice
entered English via Anglo-Norman from classical Latin nescius,
meaning ignorant. Then it wandered off every which way. From the 1300s
through 1600s it meant silly, foolish, or ignorant. During that same time
period, though, it was used with these unrelated or even contradictory meanings:
Showy and ostentatious, or elegant and
Particular in matters of reputation or conduct; or wanton, dissolute,
Cowardly, unmanly, effeminate
Slothful, lazy, sluggish
Not obvious, difficult to decide, intricate.
By the 1500s, “nice” came to mean meticulous,
attentive, sharp, making precise distinctions. By the 18th century, it acquired
its current (and rather bland) meaning of agreeable and pleasant, but other
meanings hung on, just to keep things interesting.
In Old English, “pretty” meant crafty and
cunning. Later, it took on a more positive connotation: clever, skillful, or
able. It could describe something (for example, a speech) cleverly or elegantly
made. Perhaps that is how, by the 1400s, the meaning diverted to its present
sense: good-looking, especially in a delicate or diminutive way.
If you call someone sly now, you mean they’re
sneaky and deceitful—not a good thing. But when the word entered English from
Old Norse in the 13th century, it also had a positive meaning: skillful,
clever, knowing, and wise. It’s related to “sleight,” as in “sleight of hand,”
the magician’s skill at trickery.
When terrible entered Middle English from
Anglo-Norman and Middle French, it meant causing or fit to cause terror,
inspiring great fear or dread. It also meant awe-inspiring or awesome, which could
be terrifying as well as wonderful. By the 1500s, terrible came to mean very
harsh, severe, formidable, and hence, excessive or extreme in a bad way.
Ejaculate use to mean to utter suddenly and
passionately or to exclaim. The unintended double entendres in this sentence of
the novel Jane Eyre could
make anyone snicker: "The sleepers were all aroused: ejaculations,
terrified murmurs sounded in every room; door after door unclosed; one looked
out and another looked out; the gallery filled." Still, the old-school and
modern definitions are pretty synonymous.
The word myriad used to men ten thousand (10,000). Before
people were debating whether "myriad" is a noun or adjective (it's
both), Greek mathematicians gave it the numeral M and were extremely specific
about what it meant. Think a myriad is a lot to count? Try the myriad myriad
(MM) or 100 million, the largest number in ancient Greece.
buxom used to mean mild and/or obedient. Now it means big breasts.
used to mean jealousy or hatred.The
word heartburn has never actually involved the heart. It once referred to
feelings that come from the mind. Now it describes an issue with your stomach
In Middle English,
"brothel" described the kind of person who'd cheat, steal, and
possibly frequented a bordello.
charisma used to mean a divinely conferred gift or power. In
the past, people with charisma could actually restore sight to the blind and
other such miracles. Today, believers in Charismatic Christianity still believe
in signs, prophecy, and divine healing. The root of it all: the Greek word kharis, for
bully used to mean superb or wonderful, For instance, when
Theodore Roosevelt referred to the presidency as a bully pulpit, he was not
talking about name-calling, harassment, or beating anyone with a big stick. He
was praising the social change he might shape in office.
defecate used to meanto purify
something. From the Latin defæcatus, which translates to
"cleanse from dregs," this definition still makes sense. Still, you'd
probably decline if someone offered you a glass of defecated water.
word diaper used to meana white
fabric with small diamond-shaped figures. There was nothing embarrassing
about adult diapers back in the day. The Greek root diaspros meant
artificial used to mean full of artistic and technical
skill. Now it means not real or phony.