Monday, January 16, 2017

Words Which Changed Their Meanings Over Time, No. 1

Time has a way of changing thing and language is no exception. Look around and you’ll see it happening today. Words like conversate and irregardless, though they are technically improper, edge their way into our vernacular and eventually gain acceptance.

In addition to repetitive misuse, the definition or connotation (the undertone or implied ‘feeling’) of a word can change due to either cultural changes or slang initiation. An incredibly cliché example of this is the use of ‘bad’. As slang, the meaning is exactly the opposite of its definition, implying that something is good or awesome. Speaking of awesome, this word originally described anything that inspired awe or wonder. Our use of awesome has diluted its impact down to the plain, manila ranks of neat or cool.

Words can evolve to encompass new technology, discoveries and common practices. The word drive, for example, originally referred to livestock. With the industrialization of the automobile, drive broadened its definition and most recently we have bestowed drive with the definition of digital storage and computer devices.

The English language is constantly reshaped by the meanings and connotations we attribute to the words we use. And, it is important that we know how to use words properly. The future of the English language will be determined more by how we use these words than our dictionary definitions of them. By looking back at the evolution of the English language, we can see how versatile and fluid our words are and at how much we are at the mercy of our meanings we attribute to them.


Addict – An addict was originally a person who was awarded (as a slave) to a debtor for money owed. Obviously, this word has maintained the negative connotation of slavery, though our modern version refers to substance abuse, as an abbreviated form of the word addiction.

Afford – Originally, this word meant to move forward. I suppose in a way it still does but has been narrowed in scope to financial advancement.

Angel – This one surprised me. Apparently, angel originally referred to any messenger…not necessarily one of heavenly origin.

Artificial – Here’s a stretch…this word used to refer to someone having artistic or technical skills. The roots are still visible, as we now use it to describe something created or man-made.

Aspire – To breathe into is an antique definition of aspire. Feel free to metaphorically connect that to our present definition of a focused dream or desire.

Awful – Much like awesome, awful used to describe anything worthy of awe. It still does, though the connotation has changed to involve things that are terribly worthy of awe.

Bimbo – There’s a huge difference between a promiscuous woman (modern) and being one of the guys (antique).

Bully – Bully meant superb or wonderful.

Cauldron – With its current dark connotation of witches and potions, you’d never guess cauldrons were originally used to take a hot bath, though this might contribute to the common cartoon scenarios of being boiled in one.

Conserve – Conserve used to refer to the observation of a rite or ritual.

Crave – Originally crave meant to demand a legal right to something.

Desire – We usually use this word in reference to something we want, or more specifically someone we want. Originally, desire was an astrological term that encompassed the study of the stars.

Elope – This word has changed its definition, though both encompass running off in the name of love. The difference is that it originally referred to a married woman who fled with a lover.

Evil – You may think the meaning of this word hasn’t changed much at all, as it used to describe an uppity person.

Fantastic – We’ve morphed this word into a synonym for awesome and amazing. Historically, fantastic was something existing solely in the imagination- like unicorns and tidy children.

Heartburn – Historically heartburn had a far more literal meaning and was used to describe someone full of jealousy or anger.

Hospital – Apparently hospitals used to be fun. They were a place of reception, entertainment, and fellowship with their name-sake derived from the word hospitality.

Hussy – It historically described the lady or woman of the house. I’m a hussy and I’m proud.

Infant – We use this word to describe babes-in-arms but the original meaning included children of any age that were still unable to speak.

Inmate – It used to refer to a tenant or roommate…you may now refer to everyone in your household as fellow inmates.

Manage – Manage was originally quite literal and meant to have reached the age of becoming a man. Apparently, once we needed a word to describe who was in charge we repurposed manage, since those in this position were typically men.

Myriad – Now used to describe a plethora, the word’s roots were far more specific and meant exactly ten thousand.

Naughty – Another literal word that has evolved to embrace its negative connotation. Naughty originally meant to ‘have naught’. Apparently those who didn’t have anything also lacked etiquette.

Nice - This word used to mean “silly, foolish, simple.”

Silly - Meanwhile, silly went in the opposite direction: in its earliest uses, it referred to things worthy or blessed; from there it came to refer to the weak and vulnerable, and more recently to those who are foolish.

Awful: - Awful things used to be “worthy of awe” for a variety of reasons, which is how we get expressions like “the awful majesty of God.”

Fizzle -The verb fizzle once referred to the act of producing quiet flatulence (think “SBD”); American college slang flipped the word’s meaning to refer to failing at things.

Wench: - A shortened form of the Old English word wenchel (which referred to children of either sex), the word wench used to mean “female child” before it came to be used to refer to female servants - and more pejoratively to wanton women.

Fathom - It can be hard to fathom how this verb moved from meaning “to encircle with one’s arms” to meaning “to understand after much thought.” Here’s the scoop: One’s outstretched arms can be used as a measurement (a fathom), and once you have fathoms, you can use a fathom line to measure the depth of water. Think metaphorically and fathoming becomes about getting to the bottom of things.

Clue - Centuries ago, a clue (or clew) was a ball of yarn. Think about threading your way through a maze and you’ll see how we got from yarn to key bits of evidence that help us solve things
Naughty: Long ago, if you were naughty, you had naught or nothing. Then it came to mean evil or immoral, and now you are just badly behaved.

Eerie - Before the word eerie described things that inspire fear, it used to describe people feeling fear - as in one could feel faint and eerie.

Spinster - As it sounds, spinsters used to be women who spun. It referred to a legal occupation before it came to mean “unmarried woman” - and often not in the most positive ways, as opposed to a bachelor.

Bachelor - A bachelor was a young knight before the word came to refer to someone who had achieved the lowest rank at a university - and it lives on in that meaning in today’s B.A. and B.S degrees. It’s been used for unmarried men since Chaucer’s day.

Flirt - Some 500 years ago, flirting was flicking something away or flicking open a fan or otherwise making a brisk or jerky motion. Now it involves playing with people’s emotions (sometimes it may feel like your heart is getting jerked around in the process).

Guy - This word is an eponym. It comes from the name of Guy Fawkes, who was part of a failed attempt to blow up Parliament in 1605. Folks used to burn his effigy, a “Guy Fawkes” or a “guy,” and from there it came to refer to a frightful figure. In the U.S., it has come to refer to men in general.

Hussy - Believe it or not, hussy comes from the word housewife (with several sound changes, clearly) and used to refer to the mistress of a household, not the disreputable woman it refers to today.

Egregious - It used to be possible for it to be a good thing to be egregious: it meant you were distinguished or eminent. But in the end, the negative meaning of the word won out, and now it means that someone or something is conspicuously bad - not conspicuously good.

Quell - Quelling something or someone used to mean killing it, not just subduing it.

Divest - 300 years ago, divesting could involve undressing as well as depriving others of their rights or possessions. It has only recently come to refer to selling off investments.

Senile - Senile used to refer simply to anything related to old age, so you could have senile maturity. Now it refers specifically to those suffering from senile dementia.

Meat - Have you ever wondered about the expression “meat and drink”? It comes from an older meaning of the word meat that refers to food in general - solid food of a variety of kinds (not just animal flesh), as opposed to drink.

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