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11 Words With Meanings That Have Changed Drastically Over Time

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People sometimes tell you you’re misusing a word and cite the Latin origin as proof. Don’t fall for the etymological fallacy. What a word means depends not on its origin, but on how speakers of a language understand it. Over time, words have a way of wandering, and meanings mutate. If you stuck with older meanings of the following words, you could end up in a strange land where “naughty” is the same as “nice” and “awesome” means “terrible.”

1. AWFUL

Ever wonder why “awesome” means excellent but “awful” means really bad when they both derive from “awe”? In Old English, awe meant fear, terror or dread. From its use in reference to God the word came to mean reverential or respectful fear. By the mid-1700s, awe came to mean solemn and reverential wonder, tinged with fear, inspired by the sublime in nature—such as thunder or a storm at sea. Originally, awful and awesome were synonymous, but by the early 19th century, awful absorbed the negative aspects of the emotion and the word was used to mean frightful or exceedingly bad. The earliest citation in the Oxford English Dictionary for awesome meaning marvelous, great; stunning or mind-boggling” is from the Official Preppy Handbook, 1980.

2. CHEATER

A cheater was originally an officer appointed to look after the king's escheats—the land lapsing to the Crown on the death of the owner intestate without heirs. As William Gurnall wrote in 1662, “[A] Cheater may pick the purses of ignorant people, by shewing them something like the Kings Broad Seal, which was indeed his own forgery.” Mistrust of the king’s cheaters led the word into its current sense: a dishonest gamester or a swindler.

3. EGREGIOUS

Egregious now describes something outstandingly bad or shocking, but it originally meant remarkably good. It comes from the Latin egregius, meaning "illustrious, select"—literally, "standing out from the flock," from ex-, "out of," and greg-, "flock." Apparently the current meaning arose from ironic use of the original.

4. FURNITURE

Furniture originally meant equipment, supplies or provisions, in the literal or figurative sense. For example, in a 1570 translation of Euclid’s Elements of Geometry, there is mention of “Great increase & furniture of knowledge.” Gradually, the meaning narrowed to the current sense: large moveable equipment such as tables and chairs, used to make a house, office, or other space suitable for living or working.

5. GIRL

Girl once meant a child or young person of either sex. In The Canterbury Tales, Chaucer says of the summoner, “In daunger hadde he at his owene gise/ The yonge girles of the diocise.” In modern English, that’s, “In his own power had he, and at ease/ Young people of the entire diocese.”

6. MEAT

Beginning in Old English, meat meant solid food (as opposed to drink) or fodder for animals. In A Journey to the Western Islands of Scotland (1775), Samuel Johnson noted, “Our guides told us, that the horses could not travel all day without rest or meat.” Generally, the word’s meaning has narrowed to refer only to the flesh of mammals, and in some regions, only pork or beef, but some Scottish dialects retain the older meaning of any kind of food.

7. NAUGHTY

In the 1300s, naughty people had naught (nothing); they were poor or needy. By the 1400s, the meaning shifted from having nothing to being worth nothing, being morally bad or wicked. It could refer to a licentious, promiscuous or sexually provocative person, or someone guilty of other improper behavior. ISermons preached upon Several Occasions (1678), Isaac Barrow speaks of “a most vile, flagitious man, a sorry and naughty Governour as could be.” But in the same century, “naughty” also had a gentler meaning, especially as applied to children: mischievous, disobedient, badly behaved.

8. NICE

A few centuries ago if a gentleman called a lady “nice,” she might not know whether to flutter her fan or slap his face. Nice entered English via Anglo-Norman from classical Latin nescius, meaning ignorant. Then it wandered off every which way. From the 1300s through 1600s it meant silly, foolish, or ignorant. During that same time period, though, it was used with these unrelated or even contradictory meanings:

Showy and ostentatious, or elegant and refined
Particular in matters of reputation or conduct; or wanton, dissolute, lascivious
Cowardly, unmanly, effeminate
Slothful, lazy, sluggish
Not obvious, difficult to decide, intricate.

By the 1500s, “nice” came to mean meticulous, attentive, sharp, making precise distinctions. By the 18th century, it acquired its current (and rather bland) meaning of agreeable and pleasant, but other meanings hung on, just to keep things interesting.

9. PRETTY

In Old English, “pretty” meant crafty and cunning. Later, it took on a more positive connotation: clever, skillful, or able. It could describe something (for example, a speech) cleverly or elegantly made. Perhaps that is how, by the 1400s, the meaning diverted to its present sense: good-looking, especially in a delicate or diminutive way.

10. SLY

If you call someone sly now, you mean they’re sneaky and deceitful—not a good thing. But when the word entered English from Old Norse in the 13th century, it also had a positive meaning: skillful, clever, knowing, and wise. It’s related to “sleight,” as in “sleight of hand,” the magician’s skill at trickery.

11. TERRIBLE

When terrible entered Middle English from Anglo-Norman and Middle French, it meant causing or fit to cause terror, inspiring great fear or dread. It also meant awe-inspiring or awesome, which—as we saw in the discussion of awful—could be terrifying as well as wonderful. By the 1500s, terrible (like awful, dreadful, frightful, and horrible) came to mean very harsh, severe, formidable, and hence, excessive or extreme—in a bad way.

In language, like everything else, change can be hard to accept. Don’t worry. If you’re an originalist when it comes to semantics and someone calls you egregiously awful, you can take it as high praise.

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The Curious Origins of 16 Common Phrases
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Our favorite basketball writer is ESPN's Zach Lowe. On his podcast, the conversation often takes detours into the origins of certain phrases. We compiled a list from Zach and added a few of our own, then sent them to language expert Arika Okrent. Where do these expressions come from anyway?

1. BY THE SAME TOKEN

Bus token? Game token? What kind of token is involved here? Token is a very old word, referring to something that’s a symbol or sign of something else. It could be a pat on the back as a token, or sign, of friendship, or a marked piece of lead that could be exchanged for money. It came to mean a fact or piece of evidence that could be used as proof. “By the same token” first meant, basically “those things you used to prove that can also be used to prove this.” It was later weakened into the expression that just says “these two things are somehow associated.”

2. GET ON A SOAPBOX

1944: A woman standing on a soapbox speaking into a mic
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The soapbox that people mount when they “get on a soapbox” is actually a soap box, or rather, one of the big crates that used to hold shipments of soap in the late 1800s. Would-be motivators of crowds would use them to stand on as makeshift podiums to make proclamations, speeches, or sales pitches. The soap box then became a metaphor for spontaneous speech making or getting on a roll about a favorite topic.

3. TOMFOOLERY

The notion of Tom fool goes a long way. It was the term for a foolish person as long ago as the Middle Ages (Thomas fatuus in Latin). Much in the way the names in the expression Tom, Dick, and Harry are used to mean “some generic guys,” Tom fool was the generic fool, with the added implication that he was a particularly absurd one. So the word tomfoolery suggested an incidence of foolishness that went a bit beyond mere foolery.

4. GO BANANAS

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The expression “go bananas” is slang, and the origin is a bit harder to pin down. It became popular in the 1950s, around the same time as “go ape,” so there may have been some association between apes, bananas, and crazy behavior. Also, banana is just a funny-sounding word. In the 1920s people said “banana oil!” to mean “nonsense!”

5. RUN OF THE MILL

If something is run of the mill, it’s average, ordinary, nothing special. But what does it have to do with milling? It most likely originally referred to a run from a textile mill. It’s the stuff that’s just been manufactured, before it’s been decorated or embellished. There were related phrases like “run of the mine,” for chunks of coal that hadn’t been sorted by size yet, and “run of the kiln,” for bricks as they came out without being sorted for quality yet.

6. READ THE RIOT ACT

The Law's Delay: Reading The Riot Act 1820
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When you read someone the riot act you give a stern warning, but what is it that you would you have been reading? The Riot Act was a British law passed in 1714 to prevent riots. It went into effect only when read aloud by an official. If too many people were gathering and looking ready for trouble, an officer would let them know that if they didn’t disperse, they would face punishment.

7. HANDS DOWN

Hands down comes from horse racing, where, if you’re way ahead of everyone else, you can relax your grip on the reins and let your hands down. When you win hands down, you win easily.

8. SILVER LINING

The silver lining is the optimistic part of what might otherwise be gloomy. The expression can be traced back directly to a line from Milton about a dark cloud revealing a silver lining, or halo of bright sun behind the gloom. The idea became part of literature and part of the culture, giving us the proverb “every cloud has a silver lining” in the mid-1800s.

9. HAVE YOUR WORK CUT OUT

The expression “you’ve got your work cut out for you” comes from tailoring. To do a big sewing job, all the pieces of fabric are cut out before they get sewn together. It seems like if your work has been cut for you, it should make job easier, but we don’t use the expression that way. The image is more that your task is well defined and ready to be tackled, but all the difficult parts are yours to get to. That big pile of cut-outs isn’t going to sew itself together!

10. THROUGH THE GRAPEVINE

A grapevine is a system of twisty tendrils going from cluster to cluster. The communication grapevine was first mentioned in 1850s, the telegraph era. Where the telegraph was a straight line of communication from one person to another, the “grapevine telegraph” was a message passed from person to person, with some likely twists along the way.

11. THE WHOLE SHEBANG

The earliest uses of shebang were during the Civil War era, referring to a hut, shed, or cluster of bushes where you’re staying. Some officers wrote home about “running the shebang,” meaning the encampment. The origin of the word is obscure, but because it also applied to a tavern or drinking place, it may go back to the Irish word shebeen for a ramshackle drinking establishment.

12. PUSH THE ENVELOPE

Pushing the envelope belongs to the modern era of the airplane. The “flight envelope” is a term from aeronautics meaning the boundary or limit of performance of a flight object. The envelope can be described in terms of mathematical curves based on things like speed, thrust, and atmosphere. You push it as far as you can in order to discover what the limits are. Tom Wolfe’s The Right Stuff brought the expression into wider use.

13. CAN’T HOLD A CANDLE

We say someone can’t hold a candle to someone else when their skills don’t even come close to being as good. In other words, that person isn’t even good enough to hold up a candle so that a talented person can see what they’re doing in order to work. Holding the candle to light a workspace would have been the job of an assistant, so it’s a way of saying not even fit to be the assistant, much less the artist.

14. THE ACID TEST

Most acids dissolve other metals much more quickly than gold, so using acid on a metallic substance became a way for gold prospectors to see if it contained gold. If you pass the acid test, you didn’t dissolve—you’re the real thing.

15. GO HAYWIRE

What kind of wire is haywire? Just what it says—a wire for baling hay. In addition to tying up bundles, haywire was used to fix and hold things together in a makeshift way, so a dumpy, patched-up place came to be referred to as “a hay-wire outfit.” It then became a term for any kind of malfunctioning thing. The fact that the wire itself got easily tangled when unspooled contributed to the “messed up” sense of the word.

16. CALLED ON THE CARPET

Carpet used to mean a thick cloth that could be placed in a range of places: on the floor, on the bed, on a table. The floor carpet is the one we use most now, so the image most people associate with this phrase is one where a servant or employee is called from plainer, carpetless room to the fancier, carpeted part of the house. But it actually goes back to the tablecloth meaning. When there was an issue up for discussion by some kind of official council it was “on the carpet.”

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From Snoopy to Shark Bait: The Top Slang Word in Each State
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There’s a minute, and then there’s a hot minute. Defined as “a longish amount of time,” this unit of time is familiar to Alabamians but may stir up confusion beyond the state’s borders.

It’s Louisianans, though, who feel the “most misunderstood,” according to the results of a survey regarding regional slang by PlayNJ. Of the Louisiana residents surveyed, 72 percent said their fellow Americans from other states—even neighboring ones—have a hard time grasping their lingo. Some learned the hard way that ordering a burger “dressed” (with lettuce, tomato, pickles, and mayo) isn’t universally understood, nor is the phrase “to pass a good time” (instead of “to have” a good time).

After surveying 2000 people (with proportional numbers from each state), PlayNJ created a map showing the top slang word in each state. Many are words that are unlikely to be understood beyond state lines, but others—like California’s bomb (something you really like) and New York’s deadass (to be completely serious)—have spread well beyond their respective borders thanks to memes and internet culture.

Hawaiians are also known for their distinctive slang words, with 71 percent reporting that words like shaka (hello) and poho (waste of time) are frequently misunderstood. Shark bait, one of the state’s more colorful terms, refers to tourists who are so pale that they attract sharks.

Check out the full list below and test your knowledge of regional slang words with PlayNJ’s online quiz.

A chart showing the top slang words in each state
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