Words change meaning over time in ways that might surprise you. We sometimes notice words changing meaning under our noses (e.g., unique coming to mean “very unusual” rather than “one of a kind”) — and it can be disconcerting. How in the world are we all going to communicate effectively if we allow words to shift in meaning like that?
The good news: History tells us that we’ll be fine. Words have been changing meaning — sometimes radically — as long as there have been words and speakers to speak them. Here is just a small sampling of words you may not have realized didn’t always mean what they mean today.
So which other words have we got wrong for so long they are now right?
- Nice: This word used to mean “silly, foolish, simple.” Far from the compliment it is today!
- Silly: Meanwhile, silly went in the opposite direction: in its earliest uses, it referred to things worthy or blessed; from there it came to refer to the weak and vulnerable, and more recently to those who are foolish.
- Awful: Awful things used to be “worthy of awe” for a variety of reasons, which is how we get expressions like “the awful majesty of God.”
- Fizzle: The verb fizzle once referred to the act of producing quiet flatulence (think “SBD”); American college slang flipped the word’s meaning to refer to failing at things.
- Wench: A shortened form of the Old English word wenchel (which referred to children of either sex), the word wench used to mean “female child” before it came to be used to refer to female servants — and more pejoratively to wanton women.
- Addict: In Roman times addicts were broke folk given as slaves to the people they owed money to. It comes from the Latin addictus, which meant “a debtor awarded as a slave to his creditor”. In the 1600s it was used in the sense of giving yourself to someone or some practice. Only in the early 1900s did it become associated with dependency on morphine and later other drugs.
- Assassin: Far from Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie’s highly charged characters in 2005 action flick Mr and Mrs Smith, it seems “assassin” is the Arabic word for “hashish eater” – because warriors used to get doped up. At the time of the Crusades, fanatics were sent by their sheikh to murder Christian leaders. An explanation from 1860 says: “The assassins, before they attacked an enemy, would intoxicate themselves with a powder made of hemp leaves, out of which they prepared an inebriating electuary, called hashish.”
- Awful: In the 1300s it originally meant “inspiring wonder” and was a short version of “full of awe”. But now the word has purely negative connotations.BIMBO From “bambino”, the Italian word for “little child”, it once meant “fellow, chap or one of the boys” in theatrical circles. By the 1900s it had come to mean a “stupid, inconsequential man or contemptible person”. In 1920s America through the pages of Variety magazine, it meant an immoral woman or “floozie”. Then it reappeared in the 1980s during US political scandals, with other versions such as “bimbette” and a male form “himbo” – taking it full circle.
- BULLY : Referring to someone as a bully in the 16th century was like calling them “darling” or “sweetheart” – probably from the Dutch word “boel”, meaning lover or brother. But the meaning deteriorated in the 17th century through “fine fellow” and “blusterer”, to “harasser of the weak”. However, an American slang term of the 1860s, “bully for you”, gave the word a more positive sense again.