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.


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.”


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.”


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.


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,” 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” 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.


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.


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.


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.”


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.”


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”  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.