Words Whose Meanings Have Changed Over the Centuries


The English language, while the most widely-spoken Germanic language, is also one of the most complex. Full of contradictions, synonyms, homophones, and idioms, it certainly takes some practice to pick up its context. It stands to reason that as words are commonly used out of their normal context, their meanings start to shift over time. Here are some commonly-used words whose meanings are completely different today than many years ago.

Nice


Centuries ago, the word “nice” was used to refer to someone ignorant (derived from the Latin word nescius. The meaning started to shift in the 1600s, with definitions including cowardly, lazy, sluggish, and even elegant. In the 16th century, the definition evolved again to mean “attentive or meticulous.” Finally, by the 18th century, “nice” settled on its modern-day definition of “agreeable or pleasant.”

Naughty


In the 1300s, the word “naughty” referred to someone who had nothing or naught. In the 17th century, the word was associated with the innocent misbehavior or mischief of children. Although that meaning is still commonly used, the word “naughty” has shifted even further to mean someone who is “promiscuous or provocative.”

Merry 


Today’s usage of the word “merry” is meant to convey a feeling of cheerfulness or joyousness. Originally, the word meant “short.” Centuries ago, it was synonymous with the word “brief,” in reference to something pleasant happening in a brief moment. Oddly enough, the old English word for short meant “sliced off,” so “merry” meant “short” as we know the meaning today.

Dinner


The modern-day meaning of “dinner” is one that nearly everyone can appreciate. It refers to an evening meal or the main meal of the day. The earliest meaning of the word came from the French word “disner” that referred to the Latin word for breakfast, disjejunare. The meaning naturally shifted in part, because breakfast used to be the main meal of the day or the meal in which the overnight “fast” was broken. In many English-speaking countries, dinner is now the largest meal of the day.

Awful


“Awful,” just like the word “awesome” is derived from the word “awe,” which refers to a feeling of terror or reverential fear. Prior to the 19th century, “awful” and “awesome” meant the same thing--a respectful fear of or wonderment about something. In the 19th century, the two synonyms parted ways, with “awful” assuming its modern meaning of something “bad.” Awesome has shape-shifted over the years to mean everything from “perfectly acceptable” to “amazing.”

Fine


“Fine” is one of the peculiar words in the English Language that means several different things, depending on the context. For example, it is used as a reply to the question “how are you?” as well as a noun meaning a “payment for an infraction.” In its origins, “fine” was derived from the French word “fin,” which means “end.” Today, the original meaning has shifted over time to mean something that is the “ultimate” or of the highest quality, indicating that the item has reached the highest end of the quality spectrum.

Bachelor


Long ago, young knights were called “bachelors.” They were still apprentice knights and the lowest rank in knighthood. As time went on, the word came to mean the lowest level of student or degree at a college or university and is still used to refer to Bachelor of Arts and Bachelor of Science degrees. Its other common meaning of “an unmarried man” still holds true today and has been a well-known definition for centuries.

Flirt


A flirt, as is commonly understood today, is someone who toys with or teases someone in a romantic way. Over five centuries ago, “flirting” was making a quick or sudden movement with a fan to draw attention.

Meat


While “meat” generally refers to the flesh of an animal, generally for eating, it used to mean something else. Centuries ago, “meat” referred to anything that could be consumed but that wasn’t in the category of “drink.” To put it in modern terms: vegetables, fruits, cheese, and bread-- all considered “meat.”

Guy


The word “guy” is an eponym--or a word that is named after a person, place or thing. It draws its original meaning from the name of Guy Fawkes, who tried (unsuccessfully) to blow up Parliament in the early 1600s. He was hated by the general public, so his name became a synonym for someone terrible or nefarious. It was a true insult. Today, the term refers to men in general--nefarious or not.

Clue


Years ago, a clue (also spelled “clew”) was a ball of yarn. The modern-day meaning of a hint or guide to help solve a puzzle may have come from the idea of unraveling a ball of yarn bit by bit, much as one would unravel a mystery clue by clue.

Fathom


A fathom used to be a measurement that was classed by encircling one’s arms around something. It is still related to a unit of nautical measurement for the depth of a body of water, but its more common meaning is to “fully understand after much thought.” The sea has always been a bit of a mystery, so perhaps the idea of measuring how many fathoms deep the sea may be is what spurred the idea of understanding the depths of a complicated subject or concept.

Fizzle


The word “fizzle” used to be a polite way to refer to the act of creating quiet flatulence. Over time, college students in the United States shifted the meaning to the act of failing at things.

Cute


Originally, the word “cute” was a shortened version of “acute” and referred to something or someone who was sharp or quick-witted. In the 1830s, Americans started using the word as a synonym for “pretty” or “attractive.” It also reflects a hint of its former meaning in phrases like “stop being cute” or “don’t play cute with me,” implying that someone is attempting to be sharp-witted at an inappropriate time.

Fantastic


Derived from the French word “fantastique,” the word “fantastic” used to convey something that wasn’t real--only contrived in imagination or fantasy. In the early 1930s, the word evolved a bit to include the now-common meaning of something “wonderful” or “exceptional.”

Literally


One of the most misused words in the English language, “literally” used to mean something that was “true” or “actually happening.” Today, it is used as a form of hyperbole, with phrases like “literally starving to death” when someone just needs a small snack or “literally raining cats and dogs” during a heavy downpour. Because the word has suffered so much misuse, the Oxford English Dictionary has amended its definition of it to include the hyperbolic version.

Nervous


“Nervous”  is derived from the Latin word nervosus, which means “sinewy or vigorous.” It used to refer specifically to someone who suffered from a nervous-system disorder and was under the care of a physician. Today, it describes anyone who is easily startled or experiencing a feeling of anxiety.

As society continues to take liberties with the English language (intentionally and by accident), it will be interesting to see how these, and other commonly-used words change form over the centuries to come.

The Most Commonly Misspelled Words in the English Language

Its common knowledge that English is a strange language. It has a lot of rules that contradict themselves that also have a lot of exceptions. Grammar is all over the place and proper pronunciation often doesn’t make sense. If you are not a native English speaker it can be a difficult language to learn.

With all the rules and nuances, there are a lot of words that can be tricky to spell. Here are some of the most commonly misspelled words in the English language – and some tips to remember how to spell them!

Absence
This word is not pronounced exactly how it looks so spelling can be tricky. Just remember that it makes “sence” to spell it with an E!

Acceptable
The ending of words like “acceptable” are often confused with “ible” as it sounds similar when reading out loud. Just remember to “accept” the “table” that you are being offered.

Accommodate
Double consonants can be hard enough to remember, forget two in the same word! Just remember that this word is large enough to accommodate two C’s and two M’s.

Address
Remember that both Ds are being delivered to the same address.

Basically
Having your own “ally” is a “basic” part of life.

Believe
Many learn from a young age to remember that I comes before E except after C. Believe is a word where this rule applies.

Changeable
The confusion here often comes from the E. Remember that “change” keeps its E and thus makes the G soft rather than hard.

Column
Column is not the only word of its kind in the English language, just remember that although it may not have an obvious purpose… a silent N after an M is common.

Conscience
This one is simple – don’t let yourself be conned by a “science” nerd!

Definitely
Often confused with defiantly. Remember that Definitely carries its silent E with it wherever it goes.

Embarrassment
This is another long word – long enough to fit two Rs and two Ss without getting squished.

Environment
When adapting to a new environment, you may have to “iron” out some kinks.

Exhilarate
Putting two A’s in the same word can be an exhilarating experience!

Foreign
This word breaks the I before E except after C rule – what a foreign concept!

Humorous
Take pity on the poor R in this word… it is so weak that it needs an O on either side of it in order to stay standing.

Ignorance
Don’t spell this word with an “ence,” that would be downright ignorant!

Intelligence
Remembering the two L’s and the “ence” ending are signs of great intelligence.

Leisure
The confusion with this word often comes in the beginning, where the E and I are mixed up. Just remember that you do not have to tell a lie to experience some leisure.

Lose
Often confused with “loose.” Lose the extra O and spell this word right every time.

Maintenance
“Main” and “tenance” are the primary tenants of this word.

Neighbor
You will hear lots of neighing from next door if your neighbor has a horse farm.

Perseverance
The Es in this word are only able to persevere until the last syllable, where the A takes over.

Personnel
Don’t take it personally that this word needs two Ns!

Possession
This word is in possession of more S’s than most hissing snakes!

Rhyme
When something rhymes, it has a nice rhythm – these words go well together at times.

Secretary
Remember that a secretary will always keep your secret!

Weather
You must write this word with an A after the E whether you like it or not.

Weird
This is one of the weirdest exceptions to the I before E except after C rule.

How to Make a Great Crossword Puzzle



If you’re a logophile, or word-lover, then you know that there are few greater joys than completing a crossword puzzle. The clever mix of clues and cunning use of simple and play-on-words answers mean you can spend hours lost in thought and word definitions. If you’re one of the millions of people who love spending Sundays with the New York Times’ Crossword Puzzle, the next time you want to flex that puzzle-solving muscle, consider making your own. Here are six steps to creating a great crossword puzzle.

Narrow Down Your Audience


The first step in making a crossword puzzle is choosing an audience. You’ll make a very different kind of puzzle if your audience is kids, college students, adults or industry-specific employees. The audience will influence the level of difficulty, theme, answers and clues. If you want to try and sell your puzzle to a specific publication, make sure you are familiar with the types of puzzles that publication usually includes.

Choose a Theme


With your audience in mind, choose a theme that will link the answers in the puzzle. It can be something as simple as “house.” This theme would then guide the creation of the puzzle, meaning the long answers in the puzzle would have to do with parts of a house. You can be more creative than this too, but when first starting out it’s easier to keep your theme simple. The best themes are narrow and consistently applied throughout the puzzle.

Another common way to choose a theme is to pose a question. The answer to the question would be made up of the longer answers in the puzzle. With this kind of theme, sometimes people are able to answer the thematic question before they can solve the individual clues.

You can draw inspiration for the theme from your favorite puzzle makers, everyday objects around you, subjects you’re passionate about or even your kids. As you brainstorm about your theme, list all related words that come to mind and their letter count. This will help later on with answers.

One caveat to this step is that not all crossword puzzles have a theme. However, picking a theme will make the other steps easier. Themes also make the puzzles easier and more enjoyable for your audience.

Design the Grid Layout


Once you select a theme, the next step is setting up the grid. The grid is the mix of black space and white boxes where your audience will fill out answers across and down. It’s best to start small and then work your way up to more complex grids. In general, grids are symmetrical, but some puzzle makers get creative and use grids that look like animals or other shapes.

To this day, the New York Times follows the same rules established by the paper’s first crossword editor, Margaret Farrar:

  • Use an odd number of squares on a side
  • The grid should have 180-degree symmetry
  • Black squares should make up no more than 1/6th of the grid
  • Word count should be between 72 (if no theme) and 78 (for a grid with 15 squares across)
  • The theme-based answers should be in symmetrical positions in the grid

Of course, you don’t have to follow the New York Times’ example. As you work on crosswords yourself, take note of the layouts of those puzzles. Try out different layouts and see which one you like working with or is most appropriate for your desired audience.

Fill in the Grid with Answers


The next step is creating the answers. Yes, you decide on the answers before you come up with the clues. This may seem counterintuitive, but it is how you ensure that all of the words will fit into the grid.

Here are some general rules of thumb for coming up with answers:

  • Start with the longest answers first
  • Then work across and down until you hit a corner
  • Do not repeat answers
  • When choosing answers for the words that go across, follow a pattern of “vowel, consonant, vowel, consonant” or vowel-heavy words since they will give you more flexibility for words that go down
  • If a word going across requires specialized or advanced knowledge, keep the words going down a little easier
  • Consonant-heavy works are more difficult to work into a puzzle
  • Theme-based answers should have the same letter count (contributes to the symmetry of the puzzle)

It can also be fun to try and work in a “marquee answer” or an answer that is a new phrase, something relevant to the news or pop culture, etc. You can also try to work in secret messages in your puzzles too for additional fun.

There are autofill programs that can fill in the grid for you, but it’s more fun to come up with the answers yourself.

Create Clues that Tie to the Answers


Writing clues is probably the hardest part of the puzzle. While you can put straightforward clues such as “equipment used in baseball” for a three letter answer of “bat”, the real fun of crosswords comes from making the person solving the puzzle really think. You want the person working on the puzzle to spend enough time solving the clues so that they feel clever and smart when they figure out the answer, but not so long that they get frustrated and abandon it.

Clues should be entertaining and witty and make liberal use of gimmicks and wordplay. If you are trying to come up with a new word or definition, check out WordsAPI. Our tool can help you find related words, definitions and more with our easy to use API for the English language. It’s a fun way to play with the English language – something that every great crossword puzzle maker does.

After you’ve developed a knack for writing clues, you can then advance to the New York Times’ standard of never repeating a word in the answers or the clues.

Review the Puzzle to See if You can Make it Better


With a draft of your theme, grid, answers and clues complete, take time to review your puzzle to see if anything can be tightened up or made more relevant to the theme. Let a friend test it out and ask for feedback.

Also, be sure to fact check your clues. Even if a clue and answer come from your area of expertise, it’s always good to double-check.

Get Started on Your First Crossword Puzzle Today


No matter your motivation – for fun or for publication – you can start working on designing a great crossword puzzle today. If you love the English language and playing with words, making puzzles is a fun and easy way to indulge in this passion. Making puzzles can also help you build skills to complete puzzles more quickly and easily. With a better understanding of how puzzle makers think, you’ll be better able to intuit answers and solve clues.

As with any new skill, it’s best to start small and gradually increase the complexity of your puzzles. As you make and complete more puzzles, you sure to become a cruciverbalist in no time.

Have you ever made a crossword puzzle? What tips and tricks can you share?


How to Build a Word Definition Widget with WordsAPI

One of the most common uses of WordsAPI is to let users look up definitions for words.  It's incredibly easy to accomplish - we'll do it in less than 100 lines of javascript.  If you want to see it in action, here it is.

We'll start by creating a simple form that will auto-suggest words as the user types. We'll add some simple styling using the Yahoo Pure css library.  We'll also add in an unordered list where the results will be displayed.

       
<form onsubmit="return false;" class="pure-form" style="border-top: 1px solid #eee;border-bottom:1px solid #eee;background:#fafafa;margin:30px 0;padding:20px 10px;text-align:center">
  <input id="user-input" autofocus type="text" placeholder="Type a word ..." style="width:100%;max-width:600px;outline:0" />
</form>
<ul id="definitions"></ul>
 

For the auto-complete functionality, we'll be including a small library from Pixabay. This library will handle populating the suggestion list that we get.  The library needs a function to call when the users types. We'll configure the library using the code below. The source attribute is a function that gets called when the user types. It sends in a term, and waits until a list of suggestions are provided.

       
new autoComplete({
  selector: "#user-input",
  minChars: 1,
  source: function(term, suggest) {
    getSuggestions(term).then(response => {
      suggest(response.results.data);
    });
  },
  onSelect: function(e, term, item) {
    getDefinitions(term).then(showDefinitions);
  }
});

 

The getSuggestions function is where we'll link into WordsAPI. You'll need your own API key, which you can get from here. The function makes use of the WordsAPI search capabilities by providing a letterPattern that will match any words that start with the letters the user has provided, as well as restricting the results to only words that have definitions.

       
function getSuggestions(input) {
  const url = `https://wordsapiv1.p.mashape.com/words/?letterPattern=^${input}.*&hasDetails=definitions`;
  return fetch(url, {
    method: "GET",
    headers: {
      "Content-Type": "application/json",
      "X-RapidAPI-Key": apiKey
    }
  }).then(resp => resp.json());
}
 

When the users selects a word from the suggestions list, the onSelect attribute of the autoComplete library will get called.  This will pass the results to the getDefinitions function, defined below.  This function again calls out to WordsAPI, this time to get the definitions of the selected word.

       
function getDefinitions(term) {
  const url = `https://wordsapiv1.p.mashape.com/words/${term}`;
  return fetch(url, {
    method: "GET",
    headers: {
      "Content-Type": "application/json",
      "X-RapidAPI-Key": apiKey
    }
  })
    .then(resp => resp.json())
    .then(resp => {
      return resp.results;
    });
} 
 

Finally, we'll show the results in a list below the input field in our showDefinitions function.

       
function showDefinitions(definitions) {
  definitionList.innerHTML = "";
  definitions.forEach(definition => {
    const li = document.createElement("li");
    li.textContent = `${definition.partOfSpeech} - ${definition.definition}`;
    definitionList.appendChild(li);
  });
}
 

And that's it! You can see a fully working version at this CodePen.

Why English is Weird



Approximately 1.5 billion people, roughly 20% of the world’s population, speak English. Only 350 million or so are native speakers, meaning the remaining 1.15 billion learned it as a foreign language. It’s the most widely studied second language and the default common language for many international businesses and travelers.

While these figures make it seem like it’s easy to pick up the language, many learners will probably beg to differ. English has many oddities that make it one of the harder languages to learn, despite how widely it is spoken.

Effective Ways to Learn English


There are many methods for learning languages. Classroom instruction tends to focus on learning grammar, spelling and pronunciation rules. As students learn one word, it’s only natural that they would apply the same rules to a similar looking word or similarly-structured sentence. This might work in some languages; English is not one of them.

This is often why many language learners report having better success picking up English from movies or TV. They get to hear how it is actually spoken and start to develop that native sense of when something “sounds right.”

No matter which method learners choose, they could benefit from keeping these quirks in mind.

Word Meanings


Consider these examples:

  • Pineapples do not contain any pine or any apples
  • Hamburgers are not made of ham
  • A pocketbook is not a book and it doesn’t fit into your pocket
  • Eggplants don’t have egg in them


These inconsistencies can make it harder to deduce the meaning of a word. While a new English speaker may understand part of the word, this does not necessarily mean that the speaker will grasp the meaning of the full word.

English also has a long list of homophones, homographs, homonyms, heterographs and multinyms. Most native English probably don’t know these terms, but they are familiar with the words.

  • Homophones: same sound, different meaning, ex: to, two, too
  • Homographs: same sound and spelling, different meaning, ex: bow (front of boat and to bend at waist)
  • Homonyms: same spelling, different meaning, ex: live, wound, wind
  • Heterographs: same sound, different spelling and meaning, ex: know, no
  • Multinyms: same sound, two or more different spellings and meanings, ex: raise, rays, raze, etc. 


How do you explain these differences, and so many more, to students? ESL students probably hear the phrase, “that’s just how it is” more times than they care to.

Spelling and Pronunciation


While English has some spelling rules such as “I before E except after C”, these are quickly violated as soon as a student learns the words science and weird. One grammarian says that only 44 words actually follow that rule while 923 don’t.

Another rule is that plurals are created by adding an s or es to the end of a word. But alas, mouths contain teeth not tooths, more than one mouse becomes mice and more than one moose becomes…moose.

In theory, spelling also affects pronunciation. However, English also has a lot of silent letters. In knife and gnome, for example, the first and the last letters are silent. There are also letter combinations that can lead to wildly different sounds. Take trough, rough, bough and through for example. In many situations, English is just not phonetically consistent.

Again, with these exceptions, learners are often told that they just need to memorize the different spellings and pronunciations.


Verb Tenses


Sometimes English verb conjugation is considered easy to learn because there generally aren’t different spellings depending on the subject. For example, I go, you go, he goes, we go, they go, and for past tense I/you/he/we/they went whereas the equivalent in French would have multiple spellings. In general, the past participle will be formed by adding -ed or -d to the end of the word. For example, to face becomes faced and to live becomes lived. But of course, there are irregular verbs and exceptions.

  • The past tense of fight is fought
  • The past tense of light is lit
  • The past tense of read is read
  • The past tense of feel is felt
  • The past tense of drive is drove
  • The past tense of wake is woke
  • The past tense of have is had


English also gets complicated when it comes to the future. There are many ways to talk about the future, each with their own subtleties. For example, here a few ways someone can say they are going to consume dinner at a later time:

  • I’ll get dinner
  • I’m going to have dinner
  • I was going to have dinner
  • I’m getting dinner


There may be general rules that learners can follow, but there are likely just as many, if not more, exceptions that they will have to remember as well.

Order of Words


English can also be a little peculiar when it comes to word order. In general, most sentences will follow a subject – verb – object order. However, depending on the word, adjectives and adverbials can fall in multiple locations in a sentence. For example, one can say I ate quickly or I quickly ate, but one can only say I stayed long not I long stayed.

Possession


A common grammar mistake even among native speakers is the use of apostrophes. They can be used as a contraction where he is going becomes he’s going. However, they can also be used to denote possession. Instead of saying the toys belonging to Sarah, speakers simply say Sarah’s toys. The exception to using an apostrophe to denote possession occurs with the word it.
It is warm becomes it’s warm
To describe the leaves of a tree falling off, one would say the tree lost its leaves

Native speakers will likely be forgiving of this error as non-grammar-lovers make this mistake frequently themselves.

Don’t Get Discouraged


English can be hard to learn. The rules all seem to have exceptions and there’s a lot about the language, its spelling, pronunciation, grammar and more that doesn’t quite make sense. But people who want to become fluent in this global language shouldn’t get discouraged. Its popularity also means that there are ample resources for helping students learn. WordsAPI, for example, is an online source to find definitions, synonyms, antonyms, word hierarchies and much, much more.