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10 English Words Whose Meanings Have Completely Changed

16 Jul 2020

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The English language is complex and, as such, is constantly changing and evolving. Here, we take a look at 10 words whose meanings have completely changed.

1. Awful
In Old English, ‘awe’ referred to “fear, terror or dread.” This later came to mean reverential wonder, and ‘awful’ and ‘awesome’ were synonymous with awe-inspiring. Later, ‘awful’ took on a negative connotation, and now means ‘extremely bad.’ ‘Awesome,’ however, evolved in the opposite way, probably around the mid-1900s, and came to mean ‘extremely good.’
2. Cute
Extracted from the word ‘acute,’ ‘cute’ originally meant sharp or quick-witted, and used to be written with an apostrophe in place of the missing ‘A.’ In 1830s America, it took on a new significance and came to mean attractive, pretty or charming.
3. Fantastic
Coming from the old French term ‘fantastique,’ ‘fantastic’ originally referred to things that were, or appeared to be imagined. Only recently has it come to mean ‘extremely good’ or ‘wonderful.’
4. Flirt
We now flirt by making eye contact or mirroring body language, but flirting in the 1500s was described as a sudden sharp movement. It’s original meaning was ‘to give someone a sharp blow’ or ‘to sneer at.’ The word took on a playful, cheeky meaning much later.
5. Literally
This used to refer to things that were actually happening but is now used by many people for emphasis. Ex-footballer Jamie Redknapp is known for his expressions such as “these balls literally explode off your feet.” This misuse is now so widespread that the Oxford English Dictionary has changed it’s definition.
6. Meat
From the Old English mete, ‘meat’ once referred to all solid food including animal feed. Around the turn of the 14th century, it came to mean ‘animal flesh for food.’ ‘Meat’ in the figurative sense eg. ‘the meat of the matter’ – came about at the turn of the 20th century.
7. Myriad
Nowadays, a myriad is an extremely large, uncountable number of things. In Ancient Greece, however, it specifically referred to the number 10,000. During the Bronze Age, it was represented by the symbol of a circle with four dashes.
8. Nervous
Meaning “of or belonging to the nerves,” ‘nervous’ dates from the 1660s, with roots in the Latin ‘nervosus.’ It soon came to refer to a person medically “suffering a disorder of the nervous system” and in the 1700s also took on the meaning “restless, agitated, lacking nerve” which we now use to describe someone who is easily alarmed.
9. Nice
Derived from the Latin ‘nescius’ meaning ignorant, ‘nice’ began as a term for an ignorant or foolish person, then in the 1300s and 1400s, it began to refer to someone who was finely dressed, shy or reserved. By the 1500s, it was used to describe refined, polite society and came to be used in the positive manner we’re familiar with today.
10. Spinster
It it thought that during the Middle Ages, it was easier for a married woman to find higher paid and higher status work, leaving unmarried women lower paid work such as spinning wool. Combined with the fact that it was common for people to use their occupation as identification in legal documents, ‘spinster’ soon came to refer to an unmarried woman.

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