English Words That Have Changed Their Meanings

Languages are constantly changing and evolving, and the same is true of individual words. Sometimes words change their meaning very quickly, others change very slowly, over hundreds of years.

Words That Have Changed Their Meaning Over Time

English Words That Have Changed Their Meanings

Words That Have Changed Their Meanings Over Time

Languages are constantly changing and evolving, and the same is true of individual words. Sometimes words change their meaning very quickly; for example, when the word mouse came to mean the pointing device that we use to control a computer. A computer mouse is about the same size as the animal, and the cord looks like a narrow tail, so people began calling it a mouse. Other words have also term paper writing
changed their meaning very slowly, over hundreds of years. The word nice┬ácame from a Latin word meaning ‘ignorant,’ and it originally meant ‘foolish’ or ‘stupid.’ People began to use the word to describe other negative characteristics, such as laziness, and by the Middle Ages this definition had evolved to include shyness and reserve. In the 1800s, these qualities began to be admired in English society, and the word nice became a compliment.

There are other common English words that have completely changed their meaning over time. The word silly originally meant someone who was happy or blessed. The word came to be used as a kind way to describe someone who was mentally handicapped, and gradually the old meaning was lost. The word became an insult, and today it means someone who is foolish, or not very intelligent. The word awful is another example. In the Middle Ages, awful meant ‘full of awe’ and was used to describe someone who was amazed. At the same time, the word amazed was used to describe someone who was frightened, as opposed to someone who is impressed, which is the meaning today.

 

Words That Have Changed Their Meaning Over Time 1

Language is as alive as any forest, and its evolution follows an unpredictable, winding path

 

One of the most common ways that words evolve is when the original meaning is narrowed, and the word comes to mean something more specific. The word meat was originally used to refer to any kind of food item. The meaning was narrowed until it meant only ‘flesh used as food.’ Another example of a word that has narrowed in meaning is passenger. Passenger used to mean ‘one who passes,’ and was used to refer to any kind of traveller, including people walking from one place to another. Today, it means someone who is travelling in a vehicle, such as a plane or a boat.

Sometimes the meaning of a word becomes broader instead of narrower. This is the case with the word basement, which today refers to the lower level of a house. Basement originally meant a toilet. Toilets were often kept in the lower level of large buildings such as castles, and the word basement eventually came to mean the entire floor. The word desire, which means ‘to want something very much,’ is another example. In the Middle Ages, desire was an astronomical term, and meant to gaze at the stars. The word split originally referred to a ship breaking up on rocks. People widened the meaning of the word, and began to use it to refer to anything that broke completely apart.

Words That Have Changed Their Meaning Over Time

Another metaphor would have language as a river, shaped by the cultural landscape it passes through

These are just some of the words that have changed their meaning over the years. The word fantastic used to mean something that was invented, and didn’t actually exist. Today, we use it to describe something wonderful. The word hospital used to refer to a large house on the road that was used to entertain travellers or pilgrims. The meaning changed until it came to refer to a place we take care of people who are sick. We still have the word hospitable, which refers to someone who is generous with their guests and keeps them happy. The word perfume used to refer to smoke. People came up with the idea of burning sweet-scented materials in order to make themselves smell better, and eventually when liquid scents were invented, the word perfume was carried over.

The words we use today are still changing. Until very recently, the word gay used to mean someone who was happy or light-hearted. In the 1900s, the word became slang for someone who was homosexual. In some dialects of English, the word wicked is used by young people to mean something cool, or very good. The original meaning was something evil, or very bad. If we could travel hundreds of years into the future, we would probably be confused by some of the words we would hear English speakers using. This is a positive thing, because it means that the language is alive, and that each new generation is making it their own.