Words that changed meaning

One of my favorite things in the world? Not make up, not food, not dresses: it’s language. For as long as I can remember I have been fascinated with language. From how it shapes our understanding of the world to how it is such an inherently unique human feature, to how we learn it, to how we use it and how it is far more important than most people would dare to admonish. It should be no surprise then, that the profession I chose, was to become a language teacher. Because that is how I get to be what I enjoy most on a daily basis: a language nerd. And today I thought I’d indulge in this obsession on the blog. I’d like to introduce you to 6 English words we all know, but that didn’t start out meaning what they mean today.

Language nerd alert! Words change meaning?
Yes they do and I have 6 examples for you after the click!

I normally don’t write much about language. The main reason for this is that my brain simply starts overflowing with information the minute I tap into this and I don’t even know where to begin. I could tell you many different things in greater or lesser detail. Where at work I am contained by the topics I teach and the feedback from my students in class, on here, those boundaries are less clear and thus I find it very difficult to write about language related topics in easy to understand, 1000 word blogs.

That is why, before we get to the core of this blog post, I would like to ask you if you have any ideas or language related topics you are curious about. Topics I know most about are language acquisition (& teaching obviously), sociolinguistics (on how society influences language and vice versa), as well as some basics in generative phonology and syntax. On a more every day level I also know plenty about English and Dutch grammar, words (where they come from, how to acquire them and how they function) and linguistic devices, oddities, and customs. Before this blog becomes too technical, I just want to ask you to leave a comment down below if you have any language related questions and I could try and see if I could solve them.

Okay, without further ado, let’s get to our 6 words that changed meanings. Now, if I were to call you a slut or bimbo, I am sure you would be offended. And you would be right to do so in our current day culture. However, these words were far less offensive when they first appeared in the English language. A similar fate befell words such as gay, awful and silly. But where these words went from more positive to more negative meanings, nice did the opposite: it went from a more negative to a more positive meaning.

1.) Nice

The word ‘nice’ was first coined in the 13th century. Loaned from Latin via Old French it originally meant foolish, stupid or senseless. Over time this word meant many different things and for a while, the meaning of ‘nice’ was so ambiguous that it is difficult to tell how an author might have intended its use during the 16th and 17th centuries. By the Victorian period, the word had transformed into meaning kind or thoughtful and by the early 2oth century mild agreeableness. This is the reason why I always tell students not to use the nice when writing a text, especially if you’re making recommendations.

2.) Gay

I think that if you know about any of these words’ original meanings, it will be this one. ‘Gay’ originally meant joyful, happy or pleasant. It also began to mean lewd and promiscuous by the mid 17th century, with the phrase ‘a gay house’ meaning a brothel in Victorian England. It wasn’t used to indicate homosexuality until the mid 20th century. Up until that time one could have a ‘gay time’ meaning, a happy or merry time without lifting an eyebrow. Nowadays however the mid 20th century meaning took over, becoming more and more common, and was even loaned to other languages in that meaning.

3.) Slut

If anyone were to call you a ‘slut’ nowadays any woman would most certainly take offense and rightly so. It suggests you’re a woman of loose character: a meaning that’s been around for centuries. However, the original meaning was a person (that is, any person, not just a woman!!) that is untidy or dirty. For instance, Chaucer used a Middle English version of the word to refer to a man. The two meanings coexisted until well into the 18th century. Quite possibly related to a Dutch word slodder, which gives the Dutch word slordig, meaning untidy.

4.) Bimbo

Another offensive word used exclusively for women nowadays is ‘bimbo’. However, the word used to mean ‘fellow’ or ‘chap’ until at least 1919. Yes, that’s right, ‘bimbo’ used to exclusively be used to refer to men. Originating from a version of ‘bambino’ and mostly used to indicate a man who wasn’t too bright. It began to be used for women in the 1920s and hasn’t lost that connotation since.

5.) Awful

Now this one is very straightforward if you look at it. This word consists of two parts: aw + ful. ‘Aw’ comes from awe, as in being in awe. ‘Ful’ originates from full and ‘awful’ is the one word version of saying that you are ‘full of awe’. Now the original meaning of ‘awe’ is worthy of respect or fear. The negative connotations started coming in in the early 19th century with the meaning as we know it today, that something is very very bad, stemming from 1818.

6.) Silly

My personal favorite has to be ‘silly’. According to the etymology dictionary I used to research these words, it originates from Old English gesælig meaning “happy, fortuitous, prosperous”. Me being Dutch and one of the quintessential Dutch words being ‘gezellig’ (it’s one of those words that just cannot be translated into other languages) had me do a double take. Just looking at the two spellings, the Old English and modern Dutch and it just made me wonder: what if English hadn’t changed this much over time? In any case, the word in its original form had been around since the 1200s until its meaning was replaced to foolishness in the 1570s.

I hope you enjoyed today’s blog post.
Leave a comment or question down below if you want to know more about language!

5 responses to “Words that changed meaning”

  1. Leuk artikel! Wat doe je precies voor werk? Ik doe toevallig de onderzoek s master language and cognition! Focus me ook op taalverwerving, met name pragmatiek en psychologische invloeden (doe ook psychologie)
    Er staan hele mooie discussies over hoe (en of) taal onze gedachtes beïnvloedt op internet. Video’s ervan. Sowieso op Ted, maar die andere weet ik zo even niet meer. Iets met language and thoughts ofzo (logisch haha)
    Ik vind t zelf altijd erg leuk om erover na te denken!

    • Ik ben zelf docent Engels in het hoger onderwijs, maar heb een bachelor & master Engelse Taal en Cultuur (met een minor in Engels taalkunde en vakken over Engels als wereldtaal en de geschiedenis van het Engels) waarbij ik afgestudeerd ben op een sociolinguistisch onderwerp (over de acceptatie van een Nederlands accent in het Engels). Daarna heb ik nog een Onderzoeksmaster Communicatie- en Informatiewetenschappen gedaan waarbij ik vakken als Cognitieve Taalkunde, Interactief Taalgebruik en Taal en Identiteit heb gedaan. Mijn scriptie ging daar over de inzet van Social Media in het onderwijs. Dus zeker een raakvlak met jouw vakgebied!

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