11 Words With Meanings That Have Changed Drastically Over Time
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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. In Sermons 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.