25 Words Whose Meanings Have Changed Drastically Over Time

Power of Words

Time has a way of changing things…language is no exception. Look around and you’ll see it happening today…words like conversate and irregardless, though technically improper, edge their way into our vernacular and eventually gain acceptance. (For more commonly confused words, check out The 50 Most Commonly Misused Words in the English Language.)

In addition to repetitive misuse, the definition or connotation (the undertone or implied ‘feeling’) of a word can change due to either cultural changes or slang initiation. An incredibly cliche example of this is the use of ‘bad’. As slang, the meaning is exactly the opposite of its definition, implying that something is good or awesome. Speaking of awesome, this word originally described anything that inspired awe or wonder. Our use of awesome has diluted its impact down to the plain, manila ranks of neat or cool (Yet another word that has morphed!).

Words can evolve to encompass new technology, discoveries and common practices. The word drive, for example, originally referred to livestock. With the industrialization of the automobile, drive broadened its definition and most recently we have bestowed drive with the definition of digital storage and computer devices.

Our language is constantly reshaped by the meanings and connotations we attribute to the words we use. And as bloggers, it’s important that we know how to use words properly. The future of our language then, is determined more by how we use these words than our dictionary definitions of them. By looking back at the evolution of language, we can see how versatile and fluid our words are…at the mercy of our implementation and the meanings we attribute to them.

25 words that have changed drastically over time include:

  1. Addict – An addict was originally a person who was awarded (as a slave) to a debtor for money owed. Obviously, this word has maintained the negative connotation of slavery, though our modern version refers to substance abuse, as an abbreviated form of the word addiction.
  2. Afford – Originally, this word meant to move forward. I suppose in a way it still does but has been narrowed in scope to financial advancement.
  3. Angel – This one surprised me. Apparently, angel originally referred to any messenger…not necessarily one of heavenly origin.
  4. Artificial – Here’s a stretch…this word used to refer to someone having artistic or technical skills. The roots are still visible, as we now use it to describe something created or man-made.
  5. Aspire – To breathe into is an antique definition of aspire. Feel free to metaphorically connect that to our present definition of a focused dream or desire.
  6. Awful – Much like awesome, awful used to describe anything worthy of awe. It still does, though the connotation has changed to involve things that are terribly worthy of awe.
  7. Bimbo – There’s a huge difference between a promiscuous woman (modern) and being one of the guys (antique). Not such an insult now, is it?
  8. Bully – Bully meant superb or wonderful. I love this word, or at least the previous meaning of this word…and its use still stands in other countries. (Bully for you, Australia!)
  9. Cauldron – With its current dark connotation of witches and potions, you’d never guess cauldrons were originally used to take a hot bath, though this might contribute to the common cartoon scenarios of being boiled in one.
  10. Conserve – Speaking of mystical connotations, conserve used to refer to the observation of a rite or ritual.
  11. Crave – Originally crave meant to demand a legal right to something. I guess craving chocolate (or tacos) takes on some serious judicial weight by this definition.
  12. Desire – We usually use this word in reference to something we want, or more specifically someone we want. Originally, desire was an astrological term that encompassed the study of the stars.
  13. Elope – This word has changed its definition, though both encompass running off in the name of love. The difference is that it originally referred to a married woman who fled with a lover.
  14. Evil – You may think the meaning of this word hasn’t changed much at all, as it used to describe an uppity person.
  15. Fantastic – We’ve morphed this word into a synonym for awesome and amazing. Historically, fantastic was something existing solely in the imagination. Like unicorns. And tidy children.
  16. Flirt – Another favorite of mine…historically, flirt was a flicking or jerking motion. It usually referred to the motion of a woman opening a (Victorian) fan. Makes you wonder how much those women practiced at handling those fans, doesn’t it?
  17. Heartburn – Historically heartburn had a far more literal meaning and was used to describe someone full of jealousy or anger.
  18. Hospital – Apparently hospitals used to be fun. They were a place of reception, entertainment, and fellowship with their name-sake derived from the word hospitality.
  19. Hussy – I want to take this word back, as it historically described the lady or woman of the house. I’m a hussy and I’m proud.
  20. Infant – We use this word to describe babes-in-arms but the original meaning included children of any age that were still unable to speak.
  21. Inmate – It used to refer to a tenant or roommate…you may now refer to everyone in your household as fellow inmates.
  22. Manage – Manage was originally quite literal and meant to have reached the age of becoming a man. Apparently, once we needed a word to describe who was in charge we repurposed manage, since those in this position were typically men. My how times have changed.
  23. Myriad – Now used to describe a plethora, the word’s roots were far more specific and meant exactly ten thousand.
  24. Naughty – Another literal word that has evolved to embrace its negative connotation. Naughty originally meant to ‘have naught’. Apparently those who didn’t have anything also lacked etiquette.
  25. Nice – One of the most vanilla words in the English language, nice has had quite a history. Coming from the Latin “nescire” which means “to be ignorant”, the meaning of nice has ranged from simple and foolish to cowardly, elegant, and effeminate. Today its a synonym for pleasant. This could be one of those ‘bless your heart’ words…the next time someone asks what you think of someone you find silly or ignorant, call them nice with a smile.

I’ll admit I’m no etymologist (yep, that’s the study of words and their history) and these twenty-five words don’t even begin to scratch the surface of those that have survived by adaptation. That’s why I’d love for you to add to my list in the comments below. I can’t wait to see the gems that I missed!

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