Words are an important part of communication. Perhaps, some might argue, the most important part. But words are ever-changing, and what a word means today doesn’t always align with what it meant years ago. In this article, we explore 32 words that have changed meaning over time.
The history of the English language is a long and winding road, leading words to take on new meanings as time has gone by. Some words have retained their original meaning while others have been given entirely new ones. The interesting thing about these changes is that they reflect how society has evolved over the years – from kings ruling kingdoms to computers dominating offices and homes across the globe.
Now, as we face even more societal changes – such as gender identification, cultural appropriation, and inclusion – words that we used to toss about on a daily basis will need to change again.
There are words that were once used to describe people or things in a very different way than they do now. That’s because the English language – and language in general – is a living organism: it changes through time and across cultures in order to reflect the needs of that society. Words that have changed meaning over time don’t usually do so by accident. Or, at least, they didn’t used to.
Sometimes words just take on different meanings as colloquialisms change over time, but often words were given new meaning by those in power – such as monarchs or presidents ruling a country who specified the language used within their domain.
The history of English has a lot to do with power struggles: from kings trying to control their kingdoms with words to tyrants waging wars for global domination. And sometimes words that have changed meaning did so simply because it’s more fun than keeping things traditional. Plus, pop culture plays a role in how words are used as we are increasingly exposed to sayings and meanings that we might never have seen without Facebook, Instagram, or Pinterest.
If you love words as much as I do, you’ll love some of these Words of Wisdom posts featuring some stunning quotes on various subjects, including:
WORDS OF WISDOM – THE BEST QUOTES TO GET YOUR THROUGH YOUR DAY
|Motivational Quotes||Romantic Quotes About Love|
|Food & Cooking Quotes||Quotes About Christmas|
|Quotes About Home||Funny Memes About Home & Life|
|Quotes About Being Stupid||More Quotes Coming Soon…|
Here we look at 32 words with meanings that have changed throughout history. We also see how these changes represent societal progress over time! Examples include useful words like ‘awful’, ‘unbelievable’, and ‘gay’ but there are many others for your enjoyment too!
The Word Nice
In the past, this word used to mean “simple” or “foolish”. It was meant as a derogatory comment about someone’s less-than-stellar mental capacities. Nowadays, it has a very different – and much “nicer” – meaning.
The Word Silly
The space that Nice used to occupy is now owned by Silly. Today, this is used to refer to someone who is “foolish” or acts in a way that’s immature. However, it comes from an Old English term meaning “blessed”. This word morphed over time from “blessed” to “pious” to “innocent” to “harmless” to “pitiable” to “week” to “feeble” over the course of several centuries.
The Word Unbelievable
This word originated as a contraction of words meaning “not able” and “to believe”. It meant exactly what the word says – unable to believe. In order words, you were accusing the person of lying. However, nowadays it is used to describe something as “very good or impressive”.
The Word Dumb
In the past, this word meant someone who was mute or silent – either by choice or by physical restriction. Today’s meaning relates more to mental state as a dumb person can say a lot of dumb things.
The Word Awful
This is another example of a derogatory term having been transformed from something that used to have positive connotations. Awful meant impressive, great, or worthy of respect (aka Full of Awe), and could be good or bad depending on its usage. Now, something that is awful is never very good!
The Word Fizzle
Fizzle used to be a word that described the sound made by gas escaping from something, such as drinks (or the human body)! The word has since been adopted in English slang and is now used to describe something that fails to perform as expected.
The Word Glamour
To think of something that has Glamour, one tends to think of opulence, such as Hollywood Glamour, but this word was originally used to refer to a magical enchantment.
The Word Mad
Mad is an adjective that meant “insane” or “crazy”, a way to describe someone who had severe mental problems! To ask someone “Are you mad?” had VERY serious potential consequences back in the day. Not only have these meanings softened over time, but “Mad” can now be used in a positive way, such as complimenting someone on their “Mad Skills, bro!”
The Word Sick
In the past, this was a noun meaning someone with a severe illness or disease – it was not used when someone simply felt unwell. Although it is still used in that way today, it has also expanded and has – in recent years – been adopted in English slang to describe something as “cool”.
The Word Wench
Wench is a word that has an interesting and somewhat surprising history. It first came into the English language as words describing children of both genders – it was even used to describe a young boy or apprentice – although it was more commonly used to refer to a female child. It was only later words used to describe female servants.
The Word Fathom
Fathom is a word that was used to describe the act of measurement. To “Fathom” something was to measure it using your outstretched arms to measure something. Now, instead of wrapping your arms around something, it means to figuratively “wrap your mind around” an interesting concept. I can’t quite Fathom how this came to be. However, as with many words that have changed meaning over time, there are still traditional uses of the word, and Fathom is still often used to measure the water’s depth.
The Word Clue
Clue was used to describe a thread or “balls of yarn”. These balls were useful for finding your way through winding passages, and that’s how they started being used to describe a way of finding your way out of a difficult situation. Eventually, it evolved to describe any kind of guide, even something as simple as a hint or a suggestion!
The Word Gossip
Gossip originated from words describing those who sang in the choir. The choir would often gather around and “sing” (gossip) to one another about other members of their community!
The Word Naughty
Although naughty is used to describe children (or adults) who misbehave, that wasn’t always the case. This was used to describe a child too young to speak (had naught words), or those who were poor (had naught or nothing). It wasn’t until later that it was used to describe behavior.
The Word Spinster
In the past, Spinster was used to describe women who spun yarn. This evolved into a new meaning, describing single, working, or unmarried women!
The Word Bachelor
For the variation that applies to single men, the word bachelor originally described a young knight of the lowest rank. It wasn’t until later that this word started being used to describe an unmarried man.
The Word Flirt
Flirt was used to describe something that fluttered or flickered, like a bird’s wings! Now it has a more negative connotation to describe someone who is insincere and attention-seeking, or someone playing with another’s emotions.
The Word Hussy
This is another word that completely changed its meaning over time, as it was originally used to refer to the mistress of a household (aka a housewife). Now, it takes on a much less reputable meaning.
The Word Quell
Back in the day, Quelling something or someone meant to kill it outright, now it takes on a much more subdued meaning (pun intended)!
The Word B*tch
This is another example of an offensive term that has been used in positive ways over time! It derives from the technical term for a female dog, which then transitioned to a derogatory descriptor for someone acting as such. Eventually, it became a generally disparaging description for an unliked female. Although even more recently, it is often used in a friendly way among social gatherings – but use it with caution!
The Word Dork
This is now used as a word to describe someone who is not very cool. However, the word ‘dork’ was originally another term for a male penis. Nowadays, it’s used in a more affectionate way, meaning something or somebody “nerdy” or perhaps even “super smart.”
The Word Maid
This originated in the Middle Ages when it was used to describe a woman who worked in domestic service. This word then evolved into meaning “a sexually pure or innocent young woman” (or old maid, which was meant to reference an older woman who never married and – therefore, it was assumed – remained a virgin). Eventually, it changed back to meaning those who helped with domestic chores.
The Word Senile
Senile was originally used to describe old people in general, but it changed over time to describe someone who has lost some (or all) of their mental faculties with age.
The Word Punk
This word started out life as words referring to a young boy or servant! It could even be related words describing the devil in Christian texts. Nowadays, we use words to describe those who are disaffected or antagonistic… or a type of music.
The Word Gay
Gay started out as describing those who were happy and carefree. It was even used to describe a type of fabric! Now it is used primarily to refer to homosexual men (and sometimes women). However, it further developed into a derogatory and sometimes offensive term to refer to something being “bad” or “stupid”. With the continued LGTBQ+ rights movement, the derogatory usage of the word “Gay” has been reduced substantially over the past few years, but you can still hear people comment that something is “So Gay!” in a negative way.
The Word Nerd
In the past, Nerd described unsophisticated or boorish people, now it takes on a different meaning altogether! It is words describing someone who is overly intellectual or beyond geeky.
The Word Hipster
Although Hipster was originally used to describe someone who wore a specific style of clothing, it has taken on words that relate more specifically to fashion and counter-culture.
The Word Egregious
Egregious was used to describe something that was not common or ordinary. So, if you were distinguished or eminent, you could be egregious. Such as being an egregious doctor. Now egregious behavior is more likely to be considered offensive and unnecessary!
The Word Queue
Queue words originally referred to a tail, and it has evolved into words referring to a line of people. It’s hard to imagine where this will go next, but I’d line up to see that!
The Word Quaint
Quaint was originally used to describe something that was old-fashioned or out of the ordinary. Now quaint has taken on more of a cute and homey meaning, and can often be considered diminutive.
The Word Myriad
Myriad words used to have a specific number, 10,000. So if you had a Myriad of something, you had 10,000 of that particular item. Nowadays, myriad just means a more general sense of quantity, as in having a LOT of something, without specifying a certain number. For example, Art & Home carries a myriad of Tapestry Wall Hangings. If I said this back in the day, it would not be true… as we don’t – quite – have 10,000 of them. Today, with over 2,000 of them to choose from, this word applies.
The Word Scurvy
Scurvy originally referred to someone who was infested with lice, but it has taken on a different meaning altogether! Although still not a pleasant situation, this is one of the words that have changed meaning within a similar category at least.
In Conclusion – Words That Have Changed Meaning
There are plenty of words that have changed meaning over time, and it will continue to happen as time continues to march on.
Words change their meaning as time goes on and as our understanding of the English language changes over time! Although words may seem like they are set in stone without much leeway for variation, it is interesting to note how these words have shifted and can continue to shift with time and context.
And I would not be at all surprised to see these words, and others, continue to change their meanings as time marches onward.