CLOSE
iStock
iStock

25 Words That Don’t Mean What They Used To

iStock
iStock

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

A person handing over the keys of a house.
iStock

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.
iStock

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.
iStock

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.
iStock

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.
iStock

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.
iStock

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.
iStock

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

A man making magical light between his hands.
iStock

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

A close up of piano keys.
iStock

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

A mother holding a baby's feet.
iStock

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

A person putting money in another person's hat.
iStock

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

A blue single-family home in autumn.
iStock

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

A group of birds on a power line.
iStock

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

A little boy in a superhero outfit with a red cape.
iStock

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

15. LIVID

A person putting a bandage on a bruised knee.
iStock

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

A knee-down view of a person riding a brown horse.
iStock

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

An empty room with green walls.
iStock

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

A muscly man in a blue shirt lifting weights.
iStock

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

A man in a vest and tie shrugging.
iStock

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.
Hulton Archive // Getty Images

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

A close-up of a glittering tiara.
iStock

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

A river runs through a green field.
iStock

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

An empty speech bubble.
iStock

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

A hole in a piece of cardboard.
iStock

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

A Canadian Goose landing on a water.
iStock

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.

nextArticle.image_alt|e
iStock
arrow
Words
15 Wintry Words for Snowy Weather Across the United States
iStock
iStock

While the “Eskimos have 100 words for snow” debate remains up in the (cold, cold) air, we do know—thanks in large part to the folks at the Dictionary of American Regional English (DARE)—that Americans have no lack of idioms for the chilly white stuff. Here are 15 of them from all over the United States.

1. CAT’S TRACK

A long-haired tabby cat playing in the snow.
iStock

When there’s a light fall of snow, you can call it cat’s track, a term used in Maine, Massachusetts, Illinois, and Wisconsin. A resident from the Badger State says, “If there is enough snow to track a cat, there has been a snowfall.” Conversely, not much snow can be described as “not enough snow to track a cat.”

2. SKIFT

A little girl rubbing her nose on the carrot nose of a snowman while snow falls.
iStock

Skift refers to a light fall of snow, according to DARE, as well as a “thin layer of snow or frost on the ground, or of ice on water.” The use of the term is widespread across the U.S. except in the Northeast, South, and Southwest.

3. SKIMP

A pond covered in a thin layer of ice and snow.
iStock

If someone in Iowa, Kentucky, Indiana, or north-central Arkansas says, “Watch out for that skimp,” better take heed. They’re talking about a thin layer of ice or snow. Skimp can also be a verb meaning to freeze in a thin coating.

4. GOOSE DOWN

Two Canadian geese on a frozen pond.
iStock

Get a light snow in Alabama? You can call it goose down.

5. GOOSEFEATHERS

A white feather on a black background.
iStock

In Vermont, large, soft flakes of snow might be referred to as goosefeathers.

6. THE OLD WOMAN IS PICKING HER GEESE

Five Canadian geese in a snow storm.
iStock

This colorful idiom for “It’s snowing” is especially used in the Appalachians, along with “The old woman’s a-losin’ her feathers.” Meanwhile, in Kentucky, you might hear Aunt Dinah’s picking her geese.

7. SCUTCH

A forest in a flurry of snow.
iStock

Another term for a light dusting or flurry of snow, this time in Delaware. Scutch might come from scuds, a word of Scottish origin meaning ale or beer.

8. SNOW SQUALL

Pedestrians and cars in the snow.
iStock

Why say snow shower when you can say snow squall? This chiefly Northeast saying refers to “a sudden snowstorm of short duration.” Its earliest recorded usage in American English is from 1775.

9. FLOUR-SIFTER SNOW

Flour being sifted in front of a black background.
iStock

The next time you’re in Montana surrounded by small-flaked snow, you can say, “We’ve got some flour-sifter snow!”

10. CORN SNOW

Brown stalks of corn in the snow.
iStock

You know it and you hate it: that granular, kernel-like snow that’s the result of repeated thawing and freezing. The term corn snow is used in Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Oregon.

11. HOMINY SNOW

Three snowmen wearing bright scarves and hats.
iStock

If grits are more up your alley, there’s hominy snow, a saying native to the South Midland states. The word hominy, referring to a kind of boiled ground corn, is Native American in origin, possibly coming from the Algonquian uskatahomen, “parched corn.”

12. GRAMPEL

Snow and hail on wood.
iStock

This term in northeast Washington and southwest Oregon for a snow pellet that’s “somewhat like hail” is probably a variant on graupel, “soft hail.” Graupel is German in origin and comes from graupel wetter, which translates literally as “sleet weather.”

13. SNIRT

Dirty snow marked with tire tracks.
iStock

While it might sound like a cross between a snort and a snicker, this Upper Midwest term actually refers to a mix of windblown snow and dirt. The moniker itself is a blend too, namely of the words—you guessed it—snow and dirt.

14. SPOSH

A man shoveling slushy snow in a driveway.
iStock

Back in the day, New Englanders called slush sposh, which also referred to mud. The word is probably imitative in origin and might be influenced by words like slush, slosh, and splash.

15. POST-HOLING

A close-up of a person's legs, feet covered in snow.
iStock

Ever walk in snow so deep you sink with every step? That’s post-holing or post-holing it, a saying in Colorado, Arkansas, Montana, and northwest Massachusetts. The post here refers to a fence post and hole to the hole created to secure it in the ground. Now we just need a word for sinking up to your knee when you step off a curb into slush that you’ve mistaken for ice.

nextArticle.image_alt|e
iStock
arrow
Big Questions
Where Does the Phrase '… And the Horse You Rode In On' Come From?
iStock
iStock

Horses may no longer be the dominant form of transportation in the U.S., but the legacy of our horseback-riding history lives on in language. When telling people off, we still use the phrase “... and the horse you rode in on.” These days, it’s rare for anyone you're telling to go screw themselves to actually be an equestrian, so where did “and the horse you rode in on” come from, anyway?

Well, let’s start with the basics. The phrase is, essentially, an intensifier, one typically appended to the phrase “F*** you.” As the public radio show "A Way With Words" puts it, it’s usually aimed at “someone who’s full of himself and unwelcome to boot.” As co-host and lexicographer Grant Barrett explains, “instead of just insulting you, they want to insult your whole circumstance.”

The phrase can be traced back to at least the 1950s, but it may be even older than that, since, as Barrett notes, plenty of crude language didn’t make it into print in the early 20th century. He suggests that it could have been in wide use even prior to World War II.

In 1998, William Safire of The New York Times tracked down several novels that employed the term, including The Friends of Eddie Coyle (1972) and No Bugles, No Drums (1976). The literary editor of the latter book, Michael Seidman, told Safire that he heard the term growing up in the Bronx just after the Korean War, leading the journalist to peg the origin of the phrase to at least the late 1950s.

The phrase has had some pretty die-hard fans over the years, too. Donald Regan, who was Secretary of the Treasury under Ronald Reagan from 1981 through 1984, worked it into his official Treasury Department portrait. You can see a title along the spine of a book in the background of the painting. It reads: “And the Horse You Rode In On,” apparently one of Regan’s favorite sayings. (The book in the painting didn't refer to a real book, but there have since been a few published that bear similar names, like Clinton strategist James Carville’s book …and the Horse He Rode In On: The People V. Kenneth Starr and Dakota McFadzean’s 2013 book of comics Other Stories And the Horse You Rode In On.)

It seems that even in a world where almost no one rides in on a horse, insulting a man’s steed is a timeless burn.

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

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER