Word meanings can shift radically through the years, just like pronunciation.
Called semantic change, this can occur when frequent misuse becomes standard or when metaphoric use becomes literal.
Interestingly enough, people now often say “literally” when they mean “figuratively,” though it’s still only valid for informal use.
Sometimes, the original definition of words is all but forgotten.
We’ve pulled some of the best examples.
Coined in the 1540s, “prestigious” used to mean “practicing illusion or magic” or “deceptive.” The word was actually derogatory until the 19th century. But now, of course, it means “inspiring respect or admiration.”
The older meaning comes from the Latin noun prestigiae meaning “juggler’s tricks.”
In linguistics, this is called amelioration — when a word takes on a more favourable meaning.
This noun, formerly a verb, used to mean “to cheat or hoax” in the 17th century. The new meaning, “amusement,” appeared around 1727.
The original version likely stems from the a variant of Middle English fonnen, meaning “to befool.”
Because sometimes lying to people is fun, right?
Originally, “awful” meant exactly what it sounds like: “full of awe.” People used it in the 13th century to describe something “worthy of reverence.” It comes from Old English aghe, an earlier form of “awe” meaning “fright, terror,” plus the suffix -ful.
While something “awful” might scare you, the more common meaning today, “very bad,” began in 1809.
In the 18th century, the term “broadcast” referred to farming. The adjective “broad,” meaning “wide,” combined with the verb “cast,” to figuratively mean “flinging seed.”
Modern media adopted the term in 1921 with the radio.
How English went from the natural and tangible like seeds to radiowaves, the world may never know.
Today, this verb means “to destroy a large portion of.” But historically, it has a much more specific meaning: to kill one-tenth.
It stems from the Latin word, decimatus, the past participle of decimare, literally meaning “to kill one-in-ten.” (Think of how the word “decimal” relates to 10.)
The Roman army dealt with either mutinous soldiers or enemies by dividing them into groups of 10. One was likely selected to die at the hands of his groupmates by lottery.
The new meaning appeared in the 1660s.
Originally, the word “bless” (well, blodison in Proto-Germanic) meant to consecrate with blood in pagan times, like sprinkling some on altars.
When monks translated Bibles from from Latin and Greek, they chose “bless” to represent both benedicere and eulogein, both invoking “to praise” (likely from its unrelated similarity to “bliss”).
In Hebrew scriptures, the word translated brk, meaning “to bend the knee” in combination with “praise.”
We doubt most practitioners today would consider throwing blood during a religious ceremony as holy.
“Defecate” comes from Latin defaecatus, the past participle of dafaecare, meaning “cleanse from dregs; purify.” The Latin verb is a variant of the phrase “de faece,” meaning “from dregs.”
“Dregs” refers to any liquid left in a container with other sediment — like leftover coffee with coffee grounds. Originally, “defecate” meant to remove the undrinkable pieces from a liquid.
There’s a clear relationship, but the excretory sense was first recorded in 1830.
While “dapper” took on its current meaning rather early (mid 15th century), the word comes from the same spelling in Middle Low German, which meant “strong” or “stout.”
If we trace the etymology back even further, the meaning changes more. The Middle Low German version likely stems from the Proto-Indo-Euro peon root dheb-, “dense, firm.”
We usually think of George Clooney, the epitome of dapper, in a tuxedo and slicked-back hair — not as a stout, dense man.
Historically, “inmate” has been synonymous with “roommate.” It’s technically a compound word of “in” (inside) and “mate” (companion), first appearing in English in the 1580s.
The meaning of someone confined to an institution came about in 1834.
Believe it or not, “bully” first meant “sweetheart” for both genders. It comes from Dutch boel, meaning “lover, brother,” likely a diminutive of Middle Dutch broeder, which means “brother.”
The meaning deteriorated to a pejorative term in the 17th century. The connection between the positive and negative meaning could stem from a tweaked version of “bully” from 1708: “protector of a prostitute.”
“Artificial” clearly contains a part of its earlier meaning — “art.” In the early 14th century, the word described works of art, but the meaning switched in the 15th century to roughly “fake” or “made-made.”
It stems from Latin artificialis, meaning “of or belonging to art.”
In the 1530s, “egregious” meant “distinguished, eminent, excellent” from Latin ex grege, a phrase meaning “out of the flock.”
The modern sense, “shockingly bad,” arose in the late 16th century as irony.
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