To grin once meant to scowl, a girl was once a youth of either sex, and “hello” was originally used as an exclamation of surprise! Most of the words in everyday English have been in (and occasionally out of) circulation for centuries. But how and why have their meanings changed?
One way words develop is through their transmission from one language to another and through the influence of other languages and cultures. Then there is semantic change: every word has a variety of connotations which can be added to, removed or altered over time.
Words can change via pejoration or amelioration, whereby their meanings either become increasingly negative or are elevated. This is very much affected by the times, for example the word “nice”: this could still mean “wanton” if it were not for the eighteenth century appreciation for all that was opulent!
Here are eleven terms which have swayed with the centuries. (N.B. Century was first used to describe a 100-strong Roman army.)
Derived from Latin nescius meaning “ignorant”, this word began life in the fourteenth century as a term for “foolish” or “silly”. From there it embraced many a negative quality, including wantonness, extravagance, and ostentation – it was society’s admiration of such qualities in the eighteenth century that brought on the more positively charged meanings of “nice”.
A noun and adjective used to describe a “plethora” or “vast range”, this word was first used by Greek mathematicians to denote 10,000 units with the numeral M. MM, myriad myriad or 100 million was the largest number in ancient Greece.
In the eighteenth century to “broadcast” was to sow seeds with a wide sweeping movement. It was only in 1922 that the term came to refer to the spreading of news.
“Heartburn” hasn’t ever actually involved the heart, but it once referred to jealousy and hatred – feelings close to the heart – and now describes uncomfortable symptoms caused by acid reflux or problems with the oesophagus. Still, this is only a mild condition which shouldn’t require you to call an ambulance – a word that derives from the French hôpital ambulant, which once brought the hospital to you rather than you to it.
To be called a bully in the sixteenth century was quite the compliment; meaning “good fellow” or “darling” it was a term of endearment for either sex. It was only in the seventeenth century that this kindly person became someone who showed off their good deeds, and a century later he was not only proud but intimidating and ruthless.
For all of those that despise being called “cute”, in the 1730s this word initially meant “keenly perceptive and shrewd” and only came to mean “charming and dainty” through nineteenth century American slang. The original sense of “dainty” meanwhile, was “worthy and substantial”.
Unsurprisingly, this word originally meant “full of awe” – however, the verb “to awe” derives from the noun “awe” which is not entirely positive in itself. A descendant of the Old Norse word “agi”, meaning “fright or terror”, “awe” was often used in religious contexts to denote feelings of “fear mixed with respect and reverence”. Therefore our current use of the word is not so awing after all!
Once referring to a frothy liquid, now “nonsense!”
From the Latin defæcatus, which translates to “cleanse from dregs”, in 1575 the word originated as a term for “to clean and purify”. Now it is used to refer to the body being cleansed, to put it lightly.
To us, matrix may mean either a comprehensive spreadsheet or simply the name of a 1999 sci-fi film. However, the formal contemporary definition is “something in which something is developed”. The term originally comes from the Latin “matr”- or mater, meaning a pregnant animal, and went on to mean “womb or source” before developing into its current (rare) use.
In the fifteenth century a nervous person was “sinewy and vigorous”, by the early eighteenth century they were “suffering a disorder of the nervous system”, and by the late eighteenth century it was a widespread euphemism for mentally ill – forcing the medical community to coin “neurological” to replace it in the older sense. “Nervous wreck” was first used in 1899.
There are a myriad myriad of words out there that have changed dramatically over the years! Can you think of any more to add to our list?
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