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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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23 Slang Terms You Only Understand if You Work in Antarctica
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Thanks to extreme conditions, a small research population, close quarters, and the unique experience of life there, Antarctica has developed a lingo all of its own. Yes, even freezing, remote Antarctica has slang. Here is a sample of some, er, cooler terms, which come from the many English-speaking nationalities, from Canada to New Zealand, that have stepped foot on its ice.

1. BIG EYE

In winter, Antarctica is covered in perpetual darkness; in summer, sunlight. The continent can certainly put a wrench in one’s circadian rhythms, as this slang for light-related insomnia makes plain.

2. TOASTY

Antarctica’s climate also puts a wrench in one’s mental faculties. Crew stationed there often experience a loss of words, forgetfulness, irascibility, and “brain fog” brought on by the dark, cold, and altitude. Toasty is also used for other general misdemeanors committed around the camp.

3. ICE SHOCK

Antarctica’s shell shock. As one Antarctica-based worker blogged about it, ice shock is “when you get back to the rest of the world and realize that no matter how insane Antarctica is, the real world is FAR nuttier, and that you can no longer function in it.”

4. GREENOUT

A riff on whiteout. As The Antarctic Dictionary defines it, greenout is “the overwhelming sensation induced by seeing and smelling trees and other plants spending some time in antarctic regions.”

5. THE ICE

Speaking of the ice, this is how Antarcticans refer to the whole ice-covered continent.

6. CHEECH

Not the counterpart of Chong, but a play on consonant clusters in the name of the place from which many researchers jump off to Antarctica: Christchurch, New Zealand.

7. MACTOWN

McMurdo Station, the U.S. research hub and largest Antarctic community, which can host around 1250 residents in summer.

8. CITY MICE

These are personnel who work at the main research stations.

9. COUNTRY MICE

These are crew who move among different camps on the continent.

10. ICE-HUSBAND/ICE-WIFE

When the cat's away, the mice will play. One’s ice-husband or ice-wife is like a fling for crew down in Antarctica for the season.

11. ICE-WIDOW/ICE-WIDOWER

Meanwhile, one’s spouse or significant other is stuck all alone back home as their loved one is working at the South Pole.

12. FINGY

This pejorative term for a newbie apparently derives from “f—king new guy,” or FNG.

13. BEAKER

An epithet for “scientist.” Some specialist personnel also have nicknames, like fuelie (responsible for fueling various equipment) and wastie (who deal with refuse).

14. WINTER-OVER

When crew, bravely, stay in Antarctica over the entire brutal winter.

15. TURDSICLE

It gets cold down at the southern end of the world. The average—yes, average—temperature is -52ºF. The excrement freezeth, shall we say.

16. SNOTSICLE

So too do boogers freeze in this blend of snot and icicle.

17. DEGOMBLE

“To disencumber of snow,” as The Antarctic Dictionary explains, especially before coming back inside shelter. The origin of gomble is obscure, possibly a term for little balls of snow stuck to the fur of sled dogs.

18. SKUA

Named for the predatory, scavenging skua birds found in Antarctica, a skua pile or bin is a sort of rummage bin. Crew can leave and pick over unwanted items there. Also used as a verb.

19. OFFENSIVE POTATOES

British speakers apparently did not take a liking to canned potatoes they had to eat ...

20. SAWDUST

... nor the dried cabbage.

21. FRESHIES

Shipments of these fresh fruits and vegetables are quite welcome to the cuisine-deprived Antarctica researchers and personnel.

22. POPPY

Alcohol served over Antarctica ice, which makes a pop sound as it releases the gas long pressurized into it.

23. CARROTS

Not that much of the food sounds terribly edible, if slang is any measure, but these carrots aren’t to be munched on. They refer to ice cores, ‘uprooted’ samples whose cylindrical shape resemble the vegetable.

This slang is only the tip of the, um, iceberg. For more, see Bernadette Hince’s The Antarctica Dictionary, the Cool Antarctica website, and The Allusionist podcast, which has explored linguistic life on the ice in its episode, “Getting Toasty.”

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What's the Longest Word in the World? Here are 12 of Them, By Category
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Rebecca O'Connell

Antidisestablishmentarianism, everyone’s favorite agglutinative, entered the pop culture lexicon on August 17, 1955, when Gloria Lockerman, a 12-year-old girl from Baltimore, correctly spelled it on The $64,000 Question as millions of people watched from their living rooms. At 28 letters, the word—which is defined as a 19th-century British political movement that opposes proposals for the disestablishment of the Church of England—is still regarded as the longest non-medical, non-coined, nontechnical word in the English language, yet it keeps some robust company. Here are some examples of the longest words by category.

1. METHIONYLTHREONYLTHREONYGLUTAMINYLARGINYL … ISOLEUCINE 

Note the ellipses. All told, the full chemical name for the human protein titin is 189,819 letters, and takes about three-and-a-half hours to pronounce. The problem with including chemical names is that there’s essentially no limit to how long they can be. For example, naming a single strand of DNA, with its millions and millions of repeating base pairs, could eventually tab out at well over 1 billion letters.

2. LOPADOTEMACHOSELACHOGALEOKRANIOLEIPSAN …P TERYGON

The longest word ever to appear in literature comes from Aristophanes’ play, Assemblywomen, published in 391 BC. The Greek word tallies 171 letters, but translates to 183 in English. This mouthful refers to a fictional fricassee comprised of rotted dogfish head, wrasse, wood pigeon, and the roasted head of a dabchick, among other culinary morsels. 

3. PNEUMONOULTRAMICROSCOPICSILICOVOLCANOCONIOSIS

At 45 letters, this is the longest word you’ll find in a major dictionary. An inflated version of silicosis, this is the full scientific name for a disease that causes inflammation in the lungs owing to the inhalation of very fine silica dust. Despite its inclusion in the dictionary, it’s generally considered superfluous, having been coined simply to claim the title of the longest English word.

4. PARASTRATIOSPHECOMYIA STRATIOSPHECOMYIOIDES 

The longest accepted binomial construction, at 42 letters, is a species of soldier fly native to Thailand. With a lifespan of five to eight days, it’s unlikely one has ever survived long enough to hear it pronounced correctly.

5. PSEUDOPSEUDOHYPOPARATHYROIDISM

This 30-letter thyroid disorder is the longest non-coined word to appear in a major dictionary.

6. FLOCCINAUCINIHILIPILIFICATION

By virtue of having one more letter than antidisestablishmentarianism, this is the longest non-technical English word. A mash-up of five Latin roots, it refers to the act of describing something as having little or no value. While it made the cut in the Oxford English Dictionary, Merriam-Webster volumes refuse to recognize it, chalking up its existence to little more than linguistic ephemera.

7. SUBDERMATOGLYPHIC

At 17 characters, this is the longest accepted isogram, a word in which every letter is used only once, and refers to the underlying dermal matrix that determines the pattern formed by the whorls, arches, and ridges of our fingerprints. 

8. SQUIRRELLED

Though the more commonly accepted American English version carries only one L, both Oxford and Merriam-Webster dictionaries recognize this alternate spelling and condone its one syllable pronunciation (think “world”), making it the longest non-coined monosyllabic English word at 11 letters.

9. ABSTENTIOUS

One who doesn’t indulge in excesses, especially food and drink; at 11 letters this is the longest word to use all five vowels in order exactly once.

10. ROTAVATOR 

A type of soil tiller, the longest non-coined palindromic word included in an English dictionary tallies nine letters. Detartrated, 11 letters, appears in some chemical glossaries, but is generally considered too arcane to qualify.

11. and 12. CWTCH, EUOUAE

The longest words to appear in a major dictionary comprised entirely of either vowels or consonants. A Cwtch, or crwth, is from the Welsh word for a hiding place. Euouae, a medieval musical term, is technically a mnemonic, but has been accepted as a word in itself. 

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