25 Words That Don’t Mean What They Used To

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When the English clergyman Thomas Fuller used the word unfriended in a letter dating from 1659, we can be pretty sure he wasn’t talking about his Facebook page. Instead, Fuller used the word to mean something like “estranged” or “fallen out,” a straightforward literal meaning that has long since “fallen out” of the language.

It’s to be expected that the words we use will change and develop over time as they begin to be used in original and innovative new contexts. But in some instances, these developments can lead to words gaining new meanings entirely different from their original implications—and the 25 words listed here have done just that. 

1. ALIENATE

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Alienate, like alien, is derived from the Latin word alienus, which was used to describe anything that was unfamiliar, unconnected, or foreign. And when alienate first appeared in English as a legal term in the mid-1400s, it meant to transfer ownership of some property over to someone else, so that it is now “foreign” or “unconnected” to you. It’s from here that the modern meaning of “estrangement” or “distance” eventually developed.

2. AMBIDEXTROUS

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Ambidextrous literally means “able to use both hands as well as you can use your right.” It certainly isn’t its earliest meaning, though: When it first began to be used in English in the mid-16th century, an ambidexter was someone who took bribes from both sides in a legal action, and as such ambidextrous originally meant “duplicitous” or “two-faced.”

3. BUNNY

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Bunny derives from bun—which was an old English word for a squirrel, not a rabbit.

4. CHEAP

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The use of cheap to mean “low-cost” is a relatively recent invention that dates back about 500 years. That might not sound all that recent, but compare that to the fact that the earliest record of the word cheap in any context dates from the 9th century, when it originally meant something along the lines of simply “trade” or “bargaining” or “marketplace.” Likewise, to cheapen something originally meant to ask how much it costs.

5. DUMP

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Nowadays when we say we’re “down in the dumps,” we mean that we’re in a gloomy, low-spirited mood. But the original dump from which this derives was actually an old Tudor English word for an absent-minded daydream, or a dazed, puzzled state of mind, not a depressive one. In that sense, it probably has its roots in an earlier old Dutch word, domp, meaning “haze” or “mist.”

6. EXPLODE

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The –plode of explode is derived from the same root as applaud—it originally meant “to jeer a performer off a stage.” 

7. FANTASTIC

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The link between fantastic things and absolute fantasy was once much closer than it is today. Fantastic originally meant “existing only in the imagination,” or in other words “unreal” or “based on fantasy.” Because fantastic things like these would be so extraordinary or bizarre, eventually the word became attached more loosely to weird and fanciful, and ultimately impressive or wonderful things.

8. FASCINATED

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The root of fascinated is the Latin word fascinus, which referred to a magic charm or spell. As such, its original meaning was “bewitched” or “enchanted,” not just “interested” or “enthralled.”

9. GAMUT

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Long before we started using do-re-mi, the first and lowest note of a musical scale was called ut. And the lowest of all the uts was gamma ut (named for the Greek letter gamma), which eventually simplified to gamut. As time went by, the term gamut came to refer collectively to all the notes of a musical scale, and then to the full range of a musical instrument, from where the modern sense of “the full extent” or “scope” of something eventually derived in the mid-1700s.

10. GIRL

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Bizarrely, the word girl was originally gender neutral and could be used in same way we would use child or kid. Its meaning didn’t begin to become more specific until the 15th century, after the word boy—which originally meant “a male servant or assistant”—was adopted into English (possibly from French) and effectively stole half of the meaning of girl, leaving us with the opposite pair we have today.

11. HANDICAP

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Folk etymology claims the word handicap comes from injured soldiers returning home from war and, unable to work, being forced to beg on the streets with their caps in their hands. In fact, that’s completely untrue: Instead, handicap was originally an old form of trade or bartering, in which two trading parties would have their goods assessed by an impartial third person, who would check for any differences in value to ensure that both traded items were of equivalent price. If both traders agreed with his assessment, they would drop a small amount of cash into his unturned cap which he would get to keep as part of the deal; if they disagreed, then no trade would take place and he would get nothing. It was from this original notion of “assessing the relative value of something” that we then came to have handicap races, in which stronger participants would be deliberately impeded to ensure a fair race, in the mid 18th century, and it’s from there that the more general sense of a handicap as an impediment or hindrance eventually derived in the late 1800s.

12. HUSBAND

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A husband was originally a home-owner or a head of a household—and not necessarily a married one. At its root are words meaning “home” or “dwelling” (an etymological ancestor of house) and dweller or freeholder (an ancestor of bond). Wife, meanwhile, meant “woman” originally, a general meaning that still survives in words like housewife and midwife.

13. JARGON

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Jargon was originally a word for the chirping and chattering of birds—which is the sense by which it appears in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. And because the noises made by birds are unintelligible to us, it eventually came to be mean “senseless, incomprehensible language.” 

14. KEEN

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Keen hasn’t always meant “willing” or “ardent”—it derives from an Old English word cene, meaning “brave,” “fierce,” or “warlike.” 

15. LIVID

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Describing something as livid originally meant that it was a grey-blue color, like the color of slate. In this sense, it originally meant “bruised” or “discoloured” when it first began to be used in English in the early 1600s, and it wasn’t until the 1920s that it came to mean “furiously angry”—in the sense of all of the color draining from someone’s face. 

16. MANAGE

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Manage derives, via Italian, from the Latin word for hand, manus, and originally meant to physically “handle” something—and in particular, to control a horse.

17. NAUGHTY

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Naughty is etymologically related to nought, and meant “to have nothing” when it first appeared in the language around 600 years ago. Soon afterward, it came to mean “to have no morals,” and, by extension, “wicked,” “depraved,” or “vicious,” before its meaning softened in the late Middle Ages. It was then that the modern meaning of “mischievous” or “disobedient” first began to appear. 

18. NERVOUS

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Nervous originally meant “sinewy” or “muscly,” or by extension “powerful” or “vigorous.” Back in the 15th century, a nervous person would be one with bulging muscles and who appeared visibly strong. Before long, however, nervous came to refer to impulses and disorders that affected the nerves, and ultimately by the 1700s, excitable or anxious feelings or people.

19. NICE

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Nice derives from a Latin word, nescius, meaning “ignorant” or “not knowing”—and that was its original meaning when it was first adopted into English from French around the turn of the 14th century. Over the years that followed, nice was knocked around the language picking up an impressively wide range of meanings along the way—including “wanton,” “ostentatious,” “punctilious,” “prim,” “hard to please,” “cultured,” “cowardly,” “lazy,” “pampered,” “shy,” “insubstantial,” and “dainty”—before it finally settled on its current meaning in the early 1700s.

20. PUNK

The Tavern Scene from Plate 3 of 'The Rake's Progress', a series of paintings by William Hogarth, circa 1735.
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No one knows where the word punk comes from, but its earliest meaning in English was as another name for a prostitute—the meaning by which it appears in Shakespeare’s Measure For Measure. Over the centuries, the word seems to have accrued a whole host of fairly unsavory connotations, until it first began to be used of a petty criminal or a criminal’s assistant sometime around 1900, and ultimately any disreputable person, an outcast, or an inexperienced person in the 1920s and '30s.

21. QUEEN

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The word queen apparently started life as a general name for a woman or a wife, before its meaning specialized to “the wife of a king” in the middle of the Old English period. It has remained unchanged ever since.

22. RIVAL

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Rival comes from the same etymological root as words like river and rivulet, and when it first appeared in English in the early 15th century was nothing more than another name for a shoreline or the riverbank. The modern sense of “competitor” or “opponent” is presumed to derive from fishermen competing over the best fishing waters—in fact, the Latin equivalent rivalis was historically used to describe someone who lived on the opposite bank of a river from you.

23. SPEECHLESS

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In Old English, speechless meant precisely that—permanently mute, or physically unable to speak. The figurative sense of “stunned into silence” emerged in the Middle English period, and is probably an invention of Geoffrey Chaucer

24. THRILL

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To thrill originally meant “to piece a hole in something”—your nostrils, etymologically, are your “nose-thrills.” The modern meaning of “excite” or “affect” is a more recent figurative development dating from the 1500s (perhaps Shakespeare’s doing) that implies that something “thrilling” has the ability to affect someone very deeply.

25. VOLATILE

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Volatile comes from the Latin verb volare, meaning “to fly” (the same root as volleyball, incidentally) and first described any creature capable of flight, in particular water birds like ducks, geese, and waders. From this original meaning came the chemical meaning of volatile—originally “liable to disperse in fumes”—in the early 15th century, which eventually gave rise to the figurative meaning of “fickle” or “changeable” in the mid-1600s.

20 French Phrases You Should Be Using

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According to some estimates, 30 percent of the English language—or roughly one in three English words—is derived directly from French. It’s a surprisingly high figure due in part to the Norman Conquest of 1066, which made French the language of the law, finance, government, the military, and the ruling classes in England, and effectively doubled our vocabulary overnight. But the popularity of French culture and French literature among English speakers has also given our language a whole host of other words and phrases—like mardi gras, avant garde, déjà vu, and femme fatale—that are now so naturalized in English that they can be used without a second thought.

Alongside everyday examples like these, however, English has also adopted a number of much less familiar French phrases that, despite their potential usefulness, go tragically underused. So why not add a little je ne sais quoi to your everyday conversation with these 20 little-known French expressions?

1. À la débandade

The phrase à la is well-known to English speakers for meaning “in the style of” or “according to,” and is seen in phrases like à la mode (“according to the fashion”), and à la carte (“on the menu”). À la débandade—literally “like a stampede”—was originally a military term that in English dates from the 18th century, when it was first used to refer to an informal or random course of action, or else a disorderly, scattering retreat or rout. More recently it’s come to be used figuratively in English to describe a disorderly or chaotic mess.

2. Amour fou

Used in English since the early 1900s, an amour fou is an uncontrollable and obsessive passion for someone, and in particular one that is not reciprocated. It literally means “insane love.”

3. L’appel du vide

Alongside l’esprit de l’escalier (more on that later), the French expression l’appel du vide often makes its way onto lists of foreign words and phrases that have no real English equivalent. It literally means “the call of the void,” but in practice it’s usually explained as the bizarre inclination some people have for doing something dangerous or deadly, no matter how foolish they know it is. So when you’re standing on a beach, l’appel du vide is the voice that tells you to swim away and never come back. When standing on a clifftop, l’appel du vide tells you to throw yourself off. There might not be an obvious English equivalent, but the concept of l’appel du vide is related to the psychological notion of intrusive thoughts, and the mythological song of the Siren blamed for luring sailors to their doom.

4. Après moi, le déluge

Après moi, le déluge means “after me, the flood,” and is used to refer to a person’s irresponsible or selfish lack of concern about what will happen after they have gone or moved on. Today it’s often associated with politicians and CEOs looking to secure their own interests at the expense of other people’s, but popular (and likely apocryphal) history claims the words were first used by the French king Louis XV, who repeatedly disregarded warnings of discontent among the French people in the lead up to the French Revolution. When the Revolution finally broke out in 1789 (15 years after Louis’s death), it eventually led to the execution of his grandson, King Louis XVI, in 1793.

5. Cherchez la femme

Literally meaning “look for the woman,” cherchez la femme is used in English to imply that if a man is seen acting out of character, then a woman will likely be the cause of it—find her, and the issue will be resolved. Although the origins of the phrase are a mystery, it’s often credited to the French author Alexandre Dumas, père, and his crime story Les Mohicans de Paris (1854-9). Most famously, when the story was later adapted to the stage, a character announced: “Il y a une femme dans toutes les affaires; aussitôt qu'on me fait un rapport, je dis: 'Cherchez la femme.'” (“There is a woman in all cases; as soon as a report is brought to me I say, ‘Cherchez la femme!’”)

6. Coup de foudre

Coup de foudre is the French term for a strike of lightning, and it’s been used figuratively in English since the late 1700s to mean love at first sight.

7. L’esprit de l’escalier

Known less romantically as “staircase wit” in English, l’esprit de l’escalier is the frustrating phenomenon of coming up with the perfect observation or comeback after the opportunity to use it has passed. The phrase was apparently coined by the 18th century French writer Diderot, who wrote that while visiting the French statesman Jacques Necker, a comment was made to which Diderot was unable to respond. “A sensitive man […] overcome by the argument leveled against him,” he wrote, “becomes confused and can only think clearly again at the bottom of the staircase.”

8. Honi soit qui mal y pense

“Shame on him who thinks badly of it,” warns the old Norman French saying honi soit qui mal y pense, which has been used in English to discourage preemptively or unjustly talking something down since the Middle Ages. The saying has been the motto of The Order of the Garter, the oldest and most prestigious honor awarded in Great Britain, since it was introduced in 1348.

9. Mauvais quart d’heure

As well as having your 15 minutes of fame, you can also have your mauvais quart d’heure (or your “bad quarter of an hour”)—a brief but embarrassing, upsetting, or demoralizing experience.

10. Mauvaise honte

Mauvaise honte literally means “bad shame.” In English it’s often used simply to mean bashfulness or extreme shyness, but in its earliest and original sense mauvaise honte has been used since the 18th century to refer to false or affected modesty, in which someone pretends to have a low opinion of themselves or their abilities.

11. Mise en abyme

The French word mise essentially means “that which is put,” and as such appears in a number of phrases that refer to things being deliberately placed or arranged: a mise en scène is the dressing of a theatrical stage, a mise en page is the design or layout of a book or page of text, and mise en place is now widely known as the preparation and organization of all of your ingredients before you start to cook. Mise en abyme is a much less familiar expression that was originally only used in heraldry: the abyme is the center segment of a shield or a coat of arms, and in a mise en abyme this central section is decorated with a smaller image of the same shield. So because this means that this small central image must—in theory, though rarely in practice—in turn also contain a small central image of itself (which must in turn also contain the same image, and so on, and so on), the phrase mise en abyme (“put into the abyss”) is used to refer to the mind-boggling visual effect of a recurring image containing itself into infinity—like a mirror reflected in a mirror, or, more literarily, a story within a story or a play within a play.

12. Nostalgie de la boue

The phrase nostalgie de la boue was coined by the French dramatist Émile Augier in 1855, who used it to refer to a fondness for cruel, crude, depraved, or humiliating things. Its meaning has extended over time, however, so that today a nostalgie de la boue is often used more loosely to refer to a desire to live a simpler, downsized, or less indulgent life—it literally means “a yearning for the mud.”

13. Plus ça change

In 1849 an article appeared in a satirical French magazine that denounced the country’s current political situation. Written by a French journalist named Alphonse Karr, the article pessimistically concluded that plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose, or “the more it changes, the more it is the same thing.” Karr’s words soon stuck and by the early 1900s plus ça change had even been adopted into English as a motto indicating a world-weary acceptance of the current state of affairs—although things might appear to change or improve, beneath it all they remain just as bad as before.

14. Pour encourager les autres

The ironic expression pour encourager les autres—meaning “so as to encourage the others”—actually refers to an action carried out to discourage any future unrest or rebellion. It was first used in this context by French journalists—and Voltaire—in the 18th century following the execution of an English admiral named John Byng. After a long and well-respected naval career, Byng was court-martialed by the Royal Navy in 1757 for having apparently failed to do his utmost in preventing the French from invading the British-held island of Minorca in the western Mediterranean. Although the charges brought against Byng were trumped-up (and, according to some, politically motivated)—and despite even King George II himself being petitioned to overturn Byng’s death sentence—he was executed by firing squad on board his own ship in Portsmouth Harbour on March 14, 1757. Understandably, the entire situation proved hugely controversial in England, and at the height of Britain’s Seven Years’ War against France became a major news story and source of much anti-British propaganda all across Europe.

15. Reculer pour mieux sauter

If you reculer pour mieux sauter, then you literally “draw back in order to leap better.” Derived from an old French proverb, the phrase is used figuratively in both French and English to refer to a temporary withdrawal or pause in action that allows for time to regroup or reassess a situation, and therefore make a better attempt at it in the future.

16. Revenons à nos moutons

You’d be forgiven for not quite understanding why someone might say “let us return to our sheep” mid-conversation, but revenons à nos moutons has been used figuratively in English for more than 400 years to mean “let us return to the matter at hand.” The phrase comes from a 15th century French farce, La Farce de Maître Pierre Pathelin, that became one of the most popular stage comedies of its day. It’s this popularity that no doubt helped this line—taken from a central courtroom scene in which one character, accused of stealing sheep, is advised by his lawyer to answer all of the prosecutor’s questions by baaing—to catch on in the language.

17. Foi fainéant

Fainéant is basically the French equivalent of someone who’s lazy or do-nothing, which makes a roi fainéant literally a “do-nothing king.” The term dates back at least to the 16th century in France and in English has been used since the 1700s. Originally, it referred to the Merovingian kings, who near the end of their dynasty increasingly served as figureheads with no real power. By the 19th century it extended to any ruler in a similar situation.

18. Tant bien que mal

Tant bien que mal has been used in English since the 18th century to describe anything that is only partly or moderately successful. It literally means “as well as badly.”

19. Ventre à terre

Ventre à terre literally means “belly to the ground” in French, and so, taken literally, it can be used simply to describe someone or something lying face-down (in the early 19th century it was used to refer to asking for a “pardon in a most abject position”). The modern English meaning, however, was a term from horse racing, and referred to a horse going at full gallop—so fast that its forelegs are thrown out in front, its hind legs are thrown out backwards, and its belly is directly above the ground. Doing something ventre à terre, ultimately means doing it at full speed.

20. Violon d’Ingres

Oscar-winning actor Forest Whitaker is also a trained operatic tenor. Condoleezza Rice is also a concert pianist. And the acclaimed 18th-19th century French painter Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres also just happened to be an exceptionally talented violinist. Because he was so skilled in two entirely different fields, Ingres inspired the French expression violon d’Ingres (literally “Ingres’s violin”), which refers to a hidden talent or pastime, far outside of what you are best known for, and in which you are just as knowledgeable or adept.

This story originally ran in 2014.

Are There Any Synonyms for the Word Synonym?

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iStock.com/netopaek

Some of the most frequently used words in the English language must have been created by someone with a devilish sense of humor. The word monosyllabic isn’t one syllable, long is only four letters, lisp is difficult to pronounce if you have a lisp, and synonym doesn’t have any synonyms. Or does it?

The answer to that last question is a bit complicated. Thesaurus.com lists metonym as a synonym of synonym, but their meanings aren’t exactly the same. The Oxford Dictionary of English Grammar defines synonym as “a word or phrase that means the same, or almost the same, as another in the same language.” Metonym, on the other hand, is defined as “a word or expression which is used as a substitute for another word or expression with which it is in a close semantic relationship.” For example, the crown can be used to refer to the queen, and Washington sometimes refers to the U.S. government.

There is another possibility, though: poecilonym. This is probably the closest synonym of synonym, although it’s antiquated and rarely used. David Grambs, a lexicographer for American Heritage and Random House, included it in his 1997 book The Endangered English Dictionary: Bodacious Words Your Dictionary Forgot. The word is pronounced PEE-si-lo-nim, according to Grambs, who pays homage to its obscurity. “Maybe we could all use a few spanking old poecilonyms,” Grambs writes. “Poecilonym? It's an old synonym for synonym that you'll find in these pages. But many words in this dictionary have no real counterparts in today's English.”

Allen’s Synonyms and Antonyms from 1920 also lists poecilonym and another word—polyonym—as synonyms of synonym. However, it says both of these terms are rare. So technically, there are two other words that have the same meaning as synonym, but it’s a tough position to argue when those words are no longer in modern usage.

To add another dimension to this question, some have argued that there are no true synonyms at all, as every single word carries a different shade of meaning. “Even though the meanings of two words may be the same or nearly the same, they almost never are the same in connotation, distribution, and frequency,” according to Dictionary.com. “House and home may be offered as synonyms for each other, but we all know that they are not the same.”

So if you want to start using poecilonym or polyonym in place of synonym, you’d technically be correct—but don’t expect anyone else to know what you’re talking about.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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