Posted by: Jack Henry | August 13, 2019

Editor’s Corner: Meanings Change

Today I thought I’d share part of an article from Merriam-Webster with you. The complete article contains 10 words, but for the sake of space I am just including four. If you would like to read the full article, see Words That Used to Mean Something Different.

Note: Some of the examples are quite old and the spelling rules were a little different then!

  • Bully

Original Definition:

sweetheart, darling – used of either sex


"I kiss his dirty shoe, and from heart-string I love the lovely bully. What is thy name?" – William Shakespeare, Henry V, 1600

About the Word:

The meaning of bully has been changing for almost five hundred years now, with the earliest evidence of the word dating back to the 1530s.

Along the path from heartthrob to harasser bully has also meant ‘a man of outstanding physical powers,’ ‘a hired ruffian,’ ‘the boss of a logging camp,’ ‘any of several blennioid fishes,’ and numerous other things.

  • Disappoint

Original Definition:

to remove from office


"And under this power are comprehended all the other rights and marks of soveraigntie … to proclaime warre, or to make peace: to take knowledge in the last appeale of the iudgments of all Magistrates: to appoint or to disappoint the greatest officers …" – Pierre de la Primaudaye (Translated by T. Bowes), The French Academy, 1586

About the Word:

It seems as though such a word should be quite simple; if you appoint a person to some position you can also disappoint them from it.

Yet the English language does not always work in a way that makes sense. Not only do words change meaning, but some of our prefixes do not always mean the same thing. For instance, dis- can mean ‘do the opposite of,’ as in disqualify, and also can mean ‘completely’ as in disannul.

It would certainly be pleasant if we could immediately disappoint those who disappoint us, but we generally have to wait for an election to do this.

  • Popularity

Original definition: democracy as a principle or a form of government


"For conceiving that the Prince my Father had usurped an Authority which did not belong unto him, and desiring to reduce the Government into a Popularity, and to prevent his Successors from raigning after him, see how they argued the matter amongst themselves." – Madeleine de Scudéry (translated by F.G.), Artamenes, 1653

About the Word:

While the more cynical among us might argue that our current system of government is still largely based on popularity, it is a popularity that is a bit different from the original meaning of the word.

Popularity has been in use since at least 1546, the year in which the Bishop of Winchester used it in a letter to Lord Paget, writing of ‘an inclination they have to a popularity’. The letter is concerned with grave political matters of the time, and not with who is the most liked in the schoolyard.

  • Secretary

Original Definition:

one entrusted with the secrets or confidences of a superior


"She writ to him discreetly the thoughts of her friend, leting him understand that she was the secretary; that she would serve him in all honest things he could desire." – Francisco de Quintana, The History of Don Fenise, 1651

About the Word:

Many other words that have been formed through the addition of -ary (which comes from the Latin root -arius, meaning ‘from’) have managed to keep their roots and suffixes neatly tied together: beneficiary, constabulary, and planetary.

So it seems rather obvious, when looking at a word such as secretary, that its original meaning had something to do with secrets. Yet somewhere along the way the word slipped free of its moorings and took on a not terribly secret meaning.

Kara Church

Technical Editor, Advisory

Symitar Documentation Services


  1. […] regarding an article I recently sent out about word meanings changing. One of the words was bully, which went from meaning sweetie or heartthrob to harasser. The […]

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