English Words That Have Completely Changed Meaning

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Developed from dialects brought to Britain by Anglo-Saxon settlers in the 5th century and influenced by Norse, Latin and French, the English language is the third most spoken native language in the world. There are also more people with English as a second language than there are native speakers. As such, this global lingua franca is a complicated beast, changing and mutating constantly. Take these English words, for example – they all used to mean something completely different.

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In Old English, ‘awe’ referred to “fear, terror or dread”. This later morphed into a solemn or reverential wonder, and ‘awful’ and ‘awesome’ were synonymous with awe-inspiring. Later, ‘awful’ took on a solely negative connotation, and the word found its modern-day usage to mean extremely bad. ‘Awesome’, meanwhile, evolved in the opposite way, probably in the mid-1900s, and came to mean extremely good.


A shortening of the word ‘acute’, ‘cute’ originally meant sharp or quick-witted, and was even written with an apostrophe in place of the missing A. In 1830s America, it took on a new significance and came to mean attractive, pretty or charming – though we still use it in its original manner in phrases like ‘don’t get cute with me’, referring to someone trying to be clever.


Coming from the old French term fantastique via medieval Latin and Greek, ‘fantastic’ originally referred to things that were conceived, or appeared conceived, in imagination. It’s only recently – some sources say in the 1930s – that it took on another meaning of extremely good or wonderful.


Young couple flirting

While nowadays we might flirt by making eye contact or mirroring another person’s body language, flirting in the mid-16th century was described as a sudden sharp movement. The original verb sense was to ‘give someone a sharp blow’ and ‘sneer at’. The word took on a playful, cheeky meaning much later.


At one time only used to refer to things that were actually happening – in the true and literal sense – ‘literally’ is now used by many people for emphasis. It’s a favourite of ex-footballer Jamie Redknapp, who came out with one-liners like “these balls now – they literally explode off your feet” and “he had to cut back inside onto his left, because he literally hasn’t got a right foot.” Language pedants take note, though: this misuse is now so widespread the Oxford English Dictionary has altered its definition.


Belted Galloway Sirloin

From the Old English mete, ‘meat’ once referred to all solid food, including even animal feed. Around the turn of the 14th century, it started to be used in its modern sense of animal flesh for food. ‘Meat’ in the figurative sense – meaning the principal part of something, i.e. the meat of the matter – came about at the turn of the 20th century.


Among the beautiful English words stands the word myriad. Nowadays, a myriad is an extremely large, uncountable number of things. Rewind to Ancient Greece, though, and a myriad specifically referred to the number 10,000. In Aegean numerals (used during the Bronze Age), it was represented by the symbol of a circle with four dashes.


Meaning “of or belonging to the nerves”, ‘nervous’ in this modern sense dates from the 1660s, with roots in the Latin nervosus (“sinewy, vigorous”). It soon came to refer to a person medically “suffering a disorder of the nervous system” and in the mid-18th century also took on the meaning “restless, agitated, lacking nerve” which we now use to describe an easily alarmed person.


Derived from the Latin nescius meaning ignorant, ‘nice’ began as a negative term for a stupid, ignorant or foolish person. In the 14th and 15th centuries, ‘nice’ began to refer to someone finely dressed or who was shy and reserved. By the 16th century, it was used to describe refined, polite society and came to be used in the positive manner we’re familiar with today. Now, with the phrase nice guy used to describe men who wouldn’t be considered all that ‘nice’ in polite society, the usage may be going full circle.


Loom for weaving yarn

Perhaps unsurprisingly, a ‘spinster’ used to be a woman who spun yarn or thread. Scholars suggest that during the late Middle Ages, it was easier for a married woman to find higher paid and higher status work, leaving unmarried women lower paid work like spinning wool. Combined with the fact that it was common for people to use their occupation as identification in legal documents (which is where the surnames Smith, Baker and Tanner come from), ‘spinster’ soon came to refer to an unmarried woman.

Want to find out more? Check out ‘The Development of the British English Language’ and ‘How Greek Has Influenced the English Language

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