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

Two businessmen shaking hands over a table as they exchange money beneath it.
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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

A squirrel on a log with its head cocked to the side, as though confused.
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Bunny derives from bun—which was an old English word for a squirrel, not a rabbit.

4. CHEAP

A number of tags with the word 'sale' on them.
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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

A bored woman with a thought bubble filled with palm trees, flip flops, suitcases, and an airplane.
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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

A man in front of a microphone covered in tomatoes that have been thrown at him.
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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

A unicorn in a forest surrounded by fairies.
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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.

10 Words and Phrases You Won’t Believe Are More Than 100 Years Old

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They may have been on people’s tongues even earlier, but 1914 marks the earliest year the lexicographers at the Oxford English Dictionary could document these words and phrases in print.

1. DOOHICKEY

The Oxford English Dictionary cleverly tells us that this word is a blend of doodad and hickey, defining the latter as “any small gadget or device; something of little consequence.” (The meanings “pimple” and “love bite” came later.) An unnamed writer in the U.S. publication Our Navy, November 12, 1914, says, “We were compelled to christen articles beyond our ken with such names as ‘do-hickeys’, ‘gadgets’ and ‘gilguys.'”

2. POSTMODERNISM

You might think that in 1914 folks were barely modern; how could they be contemplating postmodernism? Modern means current day, so people have always thought themselves modern—well, at least since 1456. To be fair, though, the postmodernism of 1914 is not the same as the movement in architecture, arts and literature that arose in the late 20th century—the one that preached “freedom from the tyranny of the new,” allowing creative people to mix old styles in with new ones. In 1914, Postmodernism was a reaction to Modernism, a movement in the Roman Catholic Church toward modifying traditional beliefs and doctrines in accordance with modern ideas and scholarship.

3. TIME TRAVEL

It’s a bit of a quirk that the editors of the Oxford English Dictionary didn’t find printed evidence of the phrase time travel earlier than 1914; they trace time traveler to 1894. H.G. Wells published The Time Machine in 1895 and he was quoted in the National Observer a year prior: “‘There,’ said the Time Traveller, ‘I am unable to give you an explanation. All I know is that the climate was very much warmer than it is now.’” (There’s no evidence that Wells coined the term global warming.)

4. ANTIVIRUS

In 1914, scientists knew only that viruses were infectious agents that could pass through filters that trapped bacteria, not that they typically consist of a nucleic acid molecule in a protein coat. Nonetheless, they were working on ways to combat virus infections in organisms, and a Bulletin of the Torrey Botanical Club for 1914 reported, “It was his opinion that an antivirus … was thus formed in the lower, healthy leaves which destroyed or rendered inert the virus ... ”

5. ADVERTORIAL

Advertorial, a blend of advertisement and editorial, is an ad or promotional material disguised as an editorial or objective report. So, you’d think the term would be bandied about the offices of a publication, but not blatantly emblazoned in print. There it is, though, as a headline in Rotarian, May 14, 1914: “A word to the women folk. An advertorial.”

6. ATOMIC BOMB

In a 1914 issue of English Review, guess who was apparently the first person to write about the possibility of an atomic bomb? Yes, H.G. Wells again: “Never before ... had there been a continuing explosive ...; and these atomic bombs which science burst upon the world that night were strange even to the men who used them.”

7. CHUNNEL

Although the Channel Tunnel linking England and France across the English Channel was not started until 1988 and was completed in 1994, the concept was conceived as early as 1802. In the February 4, 1914 issue of The Sketch, K. Howard declared, “Another word that will be stolen from me ... is ‘Chunnel.' This, naturally, will be the pet name for the Channel Tunnel when we get it.” He was right: In 1957, a writer for The New York Times Magazine claimed his newspaper coined the term.

8. BIG SCREEN

More than 100 years ago, before there was television with its small screen to provide contrast, the big screen already meant the movies. California's Fresno Morning Republican on October 24, 1914 reported, “The stage hands will devise noise effects to help carry out the illusion on the big screen.”

9. LIGHT SPEED

Even the popular press was talking about light speed a hundred years ago. Maryland's Frederick Post, February 25, 1914 wrote, “Measuring light speed. Even in this speed mad age we can never hope to equal the speed of light.”

10. OY VEY

You might think this Yiddish expression (literally, “Oh, woe") didn’t enter English until the 1950s, but in the New York Evening Journal, February 17, 1914, H Hershfield wrote, “I can't see a thing ... Worse then [sic] a fog. Oh Vay!”

This article originally appeared in 2014.

Supper vs. Dinner: Is There a Difference?

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A linguist might be able to guess the general region you’re from based solely on what you call your evening meal. But as an article from Wide Open Eats explains, it isn’t just a matter of dialect. Dinner and supper really do mean different things—or at least they used to.

Historically, the word dinner was associated with the largest meal of the day, regardless of whether it was served in the morning, afternoon, or evening. The term comes from the non-Classical Latin word disjējūnāre, which is defined as breaking a fast.

Supper, on the other hand, is more time-specific. It stems from the Old French word souper, meaning an evening meal, and it's generally lighter than other meals served throughout the day. In other words, supper and dinner have more to do with the quantity of food that’s served than the time of day that you feast on them.

In the 1800s and perhaps even earlier, Americans in some rural regions started calling their midday meal dinner, while supper was reserved for the evening meal. This had more to do with occupation than location, though. In parts of the South and Midwest where farmers needed ample fuel to get them through the day, the midday meal was larger (hence the use of the term dinner). In the evening, supper typically involved a light soup, and the act of eating it was referred to as supping. Indeed, the word supper is related to suppe, the German word for soup.

This is still the norm in some parts of the U.S. As Wide Open Eats discovered through Google Trends, a search for “supper” is most common in Wisconsin, South Dakota, North Dakota, Minnesota, and Iowa.

This is also the case in some parts of the South. “If you grew up in the South post-colonial era, however, chances are your association with the words have more to do with colloquial etymology, rather than the time of day you sat down to eat,” Southern Living notes. “For example, you probably heard, 'supper’s ready,' just before Mama or Grandma placed a table-full of delicious dishes before you.”

However, supper is seldom used anymore—especially among younger generations—and dinner is by far the more popular term nationwide.

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