Posted by: Jack Henry | July 19, 2018

Editor’s Corner: Words Whose Meanings Have Changed

Good morning!

In the recent past, I’ve written a lot about how grammar rules change over time. Well, along with grammar rules, the meanings of words also change. A word start out meaning one thing, but that meaning changes because people start using the word in a different way or to mean something new.

I’ve collected the following list from several different websites. I’ve included what each word originally meant and what it means today. Some of the changes in meaning are quite surprising. If you ask me, and I realize you didn’t, some groups are unfairly treated. So, I’ve added a little commentary about the inequitable evolution of some of the words. Hussies, spinsters, and wenches unite!

  • awful: This word started out with a positive connotation. It used to mean “worthy of awe.” Today, we usually use it to mean “extremely unpleasant, disagreeable, or objectionable.”
  • bachelor: The word bachelor used to refer to a young knight. Then it came to refer to someone who had achieved the lowest rank at a university (and today it still refers to BA and BS degrees). It’s been used to refer to an unmarried man since Chaucer’s day. [dbb – Note that there is no negative connotation to the word “bachelor.” More about that later (see
  • cheater:A cheater was originally an officer appointed to look after a king’s or queen’s escheats (land that reverts to the crown when the owner dies without heirs). Mistrust of the king’s cheaters led to the words current meaning: a dishonest person or a swindler.
  • girl: This word used to refer to a child or young person of either sex. Today, it only refers to females.
  • hussy: Believe it or not, “hussy” comes from the word “housewife” (but there have been several sound changes since its origination). Although it’s a little old-fashioned, now it refers to a “lewd or brazen” woman. [dbb – Hmmm, I can’t think of an equivalent pejorative word for a man.]
  • meat: This word used to be used for all solid food. Today, it refers solely to animal flesh.
  • myriad: This word used to mean precisely 10,000. Now, it just means a lot.
  • naughty: Long ago, if you were naughty, you had naught (nothing). Then this word came to mean evil or immoral. And now it means badly behaved.
  • nice: This word used to mean “silly, foolish, simple.” Today, it means “pleasant and satisfying.”
  • pretty:In Old English, “pretty” meant crafty and cunning. Later, it took on a more positive connotation to mean clever, skillful, or able. It was also used to describe something cleverly or elegantly made. Since the 1400s, it has been used to mean good-looking, especially in a delicate or diminutive way.
  • senile: Originally, this word referred to anything related to old age. Now it refers specifically to people suffering from dementia.
  • silly: Originally, this word meant helpless against attack, or defenseless; it was usually used to describe sheep. Then it referred to weak and vulnerable people. More recently, it has come to mean foolish.
  • sly:This Old Norse word used to mean skillful, clever, knowing, and wise. It’s related to “sleight,” as in “sleight of hand,” the magician’s skill at trickery. Today, it means sneaky and deceitful.
  • spinster: Spinster used to be an occupation. It referred to women who spun. Then it came to refer to an unmarried woman, and it had a negative connotation, as opposed to a bachelor. [dbb – I’m happy to report that we rarely hear this word anymore.]
  • terrible: When this word entered Middle English from Anglo-Norman and Middle French, it meant “causing or able to cause terror, inspiring great fear or dread.” It also meant awe-inspiring or awesome. By the 1500s, terrible came to mean very harsh, severe, formidable, and now it means excessive or extreme—in a bad way.
  • travel: This word traces back to the word “travail,” which means “hard work." Today, we might wonder why anyone could call traveling hard work, but a journey used to be much more difficult.
  • wench: This word is a shortening of the Old English word “wenchel” (which referred to children of either sex). It became a word for female children, and then it was used to refer to female servants. Most recently, it has been used pejoratively to refer to a “wanton woman.” [Dbb: Congratulations, modern English speakers, this word is rarely used in any serious sense these days.]

Donna Bradley Burcher | Senior Technical Editor | Symitar®

8985 Balboa Ave. | San Diego, CA 92123 | Ph. 619.278.0432 | Extension: 765432

Symitar Documentation Services

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