English words that used to mean something else!
English vocabulary has been in constant evolution since the birth of the language around the 5th century. Most of the words have been in usage for centuries now but a walk down the memory lane reveals several words that have changed in meaning over time. In some cases, the changes are so dramatic that they now mean almost the opposite of what they meant earlier. For example, the word ‘nice’, at the time of its origin, meant foolish or silly and took on a number of different meanings such as timid, reserved, fussy, precise, agreeable and kind before finally settling on its current meaning- pleasant. With changes in cultures and trends, the vocabulary also changes accordingly for a “contextual fit”. In this article, we look at some English words that had different meanings from what they do now.
Words that used to mean something else
Current meaning: wonderful or marvelous or extraordinarily good
Original meaning: existing only in imagination
The word fantastic originated in late 14th century and referred to something that was imaginary or unreal like hobbits. So, the phrase “fantastic performance” in those days would mean an ‘imaginary performance’ rather than its current meaning of ‘wonderful performance’. Although its meaning of ‘imaginative’ still exists today, it is seldom used as opposed to the more informal meaning of ‘wonderful’ or ‘extraordinarily good’.
Current meaning: pleasant, attractive or delightful
Original meaning: foolish, silly or stupid
The word nice was derived from Old French nice, meaning silly or stupid. Thereafter, its meaning has undergone an extraordinary number of changes from ‘timid’ (pre 14th century) to ‘fussy’ or ‘fastidious’ (late 14th century) to ‘precise’ or ‘careful’ (15th century) to ‘fine’ or ‘subtle’ to ‘agreeable’ (18th century) to ‘kind’ or ‘thoughtful’ (early 19th century) to its current sense of ‘pleasant’ or ‘attractive’. While its current sense has been relatively stable, if its past is anything to go by, this is probably not the end of its journey.
Current meaning: animal flesh
Original meaning: any solid food, including vegetables
Meat is derived from Old English mete, which referred to any solid food and was used to distinguish the solid foods from drinks. The word encompassed not just current-day meat but vegetables too. In fact, even till 15th century, vegetables would sometimes be called grene mete or ‘green meat’. It was around the 18-19th century that it started to refer exclusively to animal flesh.
Current meaning: very bad or unpleasant
Original meaning: worthy of respect or fear, inspiring wonder
The word ‘awful’ originated in about 13th-14th century and at the time, it actually meant the same as current-day ‘awesome’ or ‘awe-inspiring’! So, calling a person awesome today would have been the equivalent of calling a person awful then. The word ‘awesome’ originated much later in about 16th century and till early 19th century, both awesome and awful were synonymous. The shift in the meaning of awful began sometime in the 18th century as it increasingly started being used to emphasize fear and dread.
Current meaning: attractive in a pretty or endearing way
Original meaning: keenly observant and intelligent, clever, shrewd
Calling someone cute in the early 18th century would not mean that the person was attractive, but rather that the person was clever or shrewd! The word ‘cute’ was originally used as a shortened form of ‘acute’, representing shrewdness and intelligence. The origin of the current sense of pretty or endearing can be traced back to around mid-19th century.
Current meaning: disobedient
Original meaning: Needy, having nothing. Also, wicked
The word naughty is derived from naught, which itself originated in the 14th century from Old English nawiht, meaning nothing. So, naughty originally referred to people who had nothing or, in other words, the poor and needy. It also had another connotation of evilness or wickedness. It was probably this connotation that later led to the tamer meaning of ‘disobedient’ in the early 17th century.
Current meaning: one who uses strength to harm or intimidate the weak
Original meaning: sweetheart, lover
Bully meaning sweetheart? Sounds ridiculous, doesn’t it? But that’s how the word started. It originated in mid-16th century derived from Dutch boele, meaning lover or sweetheart. It was a term of affection used for either sex. The meaning deteriorated over the next few years from ‘lover’ to ‘a male friend’ to ‘a fine or jolly fellow’ before finally settling on the current meaning of ‘harasser of weak’ in the late 17th century. It is speculated that the deterioration in its meaning could be because of the influence of the word bull.
Current meaning: tensed or anxious
Original meaning: strong and vigorous
The word nervous originated in about 14th century, derived from Latin nervosus meaning strong, vigorous or sinewy. The meaning of “belonging to nerves” developed later in the 17th century while the modern sense of feeling restless, tensed or anxious developed in around 1740.
Current meaning: a married man considered in relation to his spouse
Original meaning: a male who owns a house
The word husband is derived from Old Norse husbondi, which is composed of two words: hus, meaning house and bondi, meaning occupier and tiller of the soil or dweller or peasant. Thus, husband literally meant a “house-dweller” or a man who owned a house. The current sense of a married man developed some time in the late 13th century. Guess, home ownership does make one a desirable marriage partner!