Words That No Longer Mean What They Used To

Everyone reading this is a girl. You lived much of your life in the Matrix. You’re really not all that fantastic; in fact, you’re really quite awful. Even before you were born, you were naughty and artificial, and you will never be too old to wear a diaper. Consider this, as you drink defecated water.

One of the best-remembered lines from the movie The Princess Bride is uttered by Inigo Montoya. When Vizzini continually finds every situation “inconceivable,” Montoya responds, “You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.” If you disagreed with the first paragraph of this article, or if you were in any way offended by what you read, it’s probably because the words you read do not mean what you think they mean. That is, they didn’t have those meanings when they were introduced into the English language.

Consider these examples of words that no longer mean what they used to.

  • Alienate — Today, alienate carries a negative connotation. It typically refers to the consequences of someone’s anti-social tendencies. As it was originally used, it was a legal term. It first appeared in the mid-1400s to describe the action of transferring ownership of property to someone else. Once the transfer was complete, that property became foreign or unconnected to the original owner. In other words, alien.
  • Ambidextrous — We applaud anyone capable of using both right and left hands equally well. Being ambidextrous was not always a compliment. It originated as a mid-16th century way to describe someone who was so unscrupulous that he took bribes from both sides.
  • Artificial — Today, artificial is something that is “less than.” Why settle for artificial flavoring when you can have the real thing? Originally, it was a compliment. For something to be artificial, it meant that it was full of artistic and technical skill.
  • Awful — Nobody wants to be referred to as “awful” today. Originally, it was a term of great respect. It meant “commanding awe.” In Moby Dick, Herman Melville writes, “There is, one knows not what sweet mystery about this sea, whose gently awful stirrings seem to speak of some hidden soul beneath….”
  • Balderdash — These days, declaring something as “balderdash” is a way to express disbelief. Originally, balderdash was simply the name of a frothy liquid. By the 16th century, it evolved to become the name of an unappetizing combination of liquids. From there, it developed into modern usage, signifying something too outlandish to stomach.
  • Bully — No one likes a bully, at least not anymore. It used to be a positive word, meaning “superb” or “wonderful.” Theodore Roosevelt famously described the presidency as “a bully pulpit.”
  • Bunny — Bunnies used to have small ears. Nothing changed about the animal — just the name for it. Bunny derives from bun, an Old English word for a squirrel, not a rabbit.
  • Charisma — A person with charisma is said to have a compelling manner about his or her personality or speech. With its origin in the Greek word χάρις, it originally described something that was a God-given gift or power.
  • Cheap — The use of cheap to mean “low-cost” is a practice that is only about 500 years old. The earliest record of its use is in the 9th century when it referred to the act of trading or marketing. As used in those days, “to cheapen” something was simply an inquiry into how much it might cost.
  • Dapper — When we say that someone is “dapper,” we are saying that he or she is good-looking and well-dressed. From low German, it originally meant “stout” or “heavy-set.”
  • Defecate — If there was ever a word that has transformed over the years, it is defecate. From the Latin defæcatus, it translates to “cleanse from dregs” and meant “to purify.” Today, health-conscious folks ask for purified bottled water. In the old days, they would ask for defecated water.
  • Diaper — Long before Depends marketed adult diapers to people with incontinence issues, grown-ups wore diapers, and they did it proudly. From the Greek “diaspros” for “pure white,” a diaper was white fabric with small diamond-shaped figures.
  • Dump — Being “down in the dumps” is akin to being sad or depressed. Originally it referred to being absent-minded, or in a dazed, puzzled state of mind. The word comes from an old Dutch word, domp, meaning “haze” or “mist.”
  • Explode — Explosions may not be the first thing you would consider using if you disliked a performance. Originally, explode meant “to jeer a performer off the stage.” The plode part of the word comes from the same root as applaud. The ex means “out.”
  • FantasticUnicorns are fantastic. That’s something about which the people of today and of the late Middle Ages would agree, but we’d be saying different things. Originally, fantastic indicated that something derived out of fantasy. A unicorn is fantastic because it only exists in fantasy.
  • Fascinated — Saying that you are fascinated by someone is generally a compliment. Originally, it was an accusation that could lead to that person being burned at the stake. The root of fascinated is the Latin word fascinus, referring to a magic charm or spell. Saying that someone fascinated you meant he or she placed you under a spell or bewitched you.
  • Gamut — “Running the gamut” means, for us, gaining the full experience of something. Originally, it was a musical term. Before the practice of labeling musical notes as A,B,C,D,E,F, and G, the first and lowest note of a musical scale was “ut.” The lowest of all low notes was the “gamma ut.” Shortened to “gamut,” it referred to all of the notes of a musical scale.
  • Girl — Long before the 21st century debate about gender identity, boys could be girls. The word girl was originally gender neutral and could be used in same way we would use child. It wasn’t under the 15th century that it took on gender specificity. The trigger for this change was the adoption of the word boy, which originally referred to “a male servant or assistant.” Once this happened, the need arose for an opposite to a boy, and girl filled that need.
  • Handicap — Originally handicap was a term from trading. An impartial third person would be called upon to evaluate the items that were to be traded for each other. Once that person declared the value for both sides, it was up to the trading parties to decide if they agreed. If they did, they gave that person some money by dropping it in his cap. If they disagreed, that person would get nothing. Handicap referred to “assessing the relative value of something.” From that, we derived the practice of assessing the competitive strength of participants in competitions and imposing some kind of impediment against the stronger to allow for a fair competition. From that, the current meaning of a handicap being an impediment or hinderance derived.
  • Heartburn — Heartburn is caused today by eating too much or consuming particularly-spicy food. Originally, it had nothing to do with food. To have heartburn meant that you harbored hatred or jealousy.
  • Husband — It used to be possible to be a husband without being married. It originally referred to a homeowner or the head of a household. The root words come from “home” or “dwelling.” Wife, likewise, originally meant “woman,” regardless of marital status. That usage remains today in the words housewife and midwife.
  • Inmate — Almost every landlord has hand a bad experience with a renter, leading to the belief that the better place for that person to stay would be in a jail. Based on the word origin, that’s not far from the truth. Originally, inmate referred to a tenant or housemate, not an incarcerated prisoner.
  • Jargon — The chirping and chattering of birds is what Geoffrey Chaucer was referring to when he used jargon in The Canterbury Tales. It is because the chirping of birds is incomprehensible to us that the word came to signify something that is a “senseless, incomprehensible language.”
  • Keen — If you say you aren’t very keen to try something, you mean that you are unwilling to do so. Had you said that in the Middle Ages, you would be admitting to cowardice. It comes from the Old English cene, meaning “brave,” “fierce,” or “warlike.”
  • Livid — If you think of someone becoming livid over a matter, you’re probably thinking his or her face is turning red in anger. Originally, it referred to something that it was a grey-blue color, like the color of slate. It wasn’t until the 1920s that it came to mean “furiously angry.”
  • Matrix — Long before the Keanu Reeves movie popularized the term, we all lived in the Matrix. Originally, the word referred to the womb. For that matter, since the egg from which you were formed developed in your mother’s ovaries before she was born, in one sense, you have lived in two different matrices. Chew on that thought the next time you are having difficulty getting to sleep.
  • Myriad — We use myriad to refer to a large, undefined number of things. Originally, it was quite specific. It was the name ancient Greek mathematicians gave to the number 10,000. They represented it with “M.” The largest number in ancient Greece was 100 million, which they called “myriad myriad” and wrote as “MM.”
  • Naughty — With its origin coming from the word nought, admitting to being naughty meant that you were saying you had nothing. From that, it took on the significance of having no morals and being utterly wicked or depraved. By the time of the late Middle Ages, its meaning softened a bit to refer to someone who was mischievous or disobedient.
  • Nervous — We think of a nervous person as being cowardly, slight, and rather unimposing. It originally meant quite the opposite. Its origins come from roots that mean “sinewy” or “muscular.” In the 15th century, calling someone “nervous” described him or her as one with bulging muscles and who appeared visibly strong. By the 1700s, the word was more associated with nerves, rather than muscles, and it took on the meaning of being excitable or anxious.
  • Nice — Do you know someone who is unfailingly nice? Thinking of that person probably brings a smile to your face. In the 14th century, “nice” people earned smiles, but for different reasons. From the Latin word nescius, meaning “ignorant” or “not knowing,” a nice person was the village idiot. In the years since, it has changed meanings many times. Among its many definitions have been “wanton,” “ostentatious,” “punctilious,” “prim,” “hard to please,” “cultured,” “cowardly,” “lazy,” “pampered,” “shy,” “insubstantial,” and “dainty.” It wasn’t until the 18th century that its current meaning became standard. It appears twice in the 16th century Douay-Rheims Bible. In both cases, it is a less-than-complimentary usage: “The man that is nice among you, and very delicate, shall envy his own brother, and his wife, that lieth in his bosom,” (Deuteronomy 28:54) and “But to pursue brevity of speech, and to avoid nice declarations of things, is to be granted to him that maketh an abridgment.” (2 Machabees 2:32).
  • Punk — We think of a punk as a petty criminal or an outcast. Shakespeare used it in a different way when it first appeared. In his play Measure For Measure, a punk is a prostitute.
  • Queen — Many a man has declared that his wife is the “queen of the castle.” Originally, the word applied generally to any woman or wife. It was in the middle of the Old English period that the word became exclusively a title for the wife of the king.
  • Rival — Originally, a rival was another word for a riverbank or shoreline. From the root words for river and rivulets, it gained its modern use as “competitor” or “opponent” from the fact that a fisherman competing against you was probably on the opposite riverbank.
  • Speechless — We have all been struck speechless at one time or another. Fortunately, it was a temporary condition caused by astonishment. Originally, it referred to someone who was permanently mute. It was probably Geoffrey Chaucer to began to use it in its modern sense during the Middle English period.
  • Thrill — It was probably Shakespeare who was responsible for the modern meaning of thrill as affecting someone profoundly. Prior to the Bard’s adaptation, it meant “to piece a hole in something.” The word nostril, for example, comes from the words nose and thrill; in other words, the holes in your nose. —your nostrils, etymologically, are your “nose-thrills.”
  • Volatile — From the Latin volare, meaning “to fly,” volatile originally referred to anything capable of flight. Ducks, geese, butterflies, etc. were “volatile creatures.” In the early 1400s, the meaning shifted to be “liable to disperse in fumes.” By the mid-1600s, it referred to anyone who was “fickle or changeable.”

3 replies »

  1. So funny how some of these words have completely changed meaning over the years. Imagine going back to these times and being completely offended if someone offered you defecated water! Or offending them by calling them nice!! Maggie

    Liked by 1 person

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