It is inevitable that words change their meanings over time but it is still interesting to know the English words the meanings of which became very different from what they mean originally.
You might be surprised to know that the words you’ll find here are mostly words that you use regularly. It is a regular occurrence and the change of meaning could be narrowed or broadened. An example of this is the word ”hound.” Previously, a canine is traditionally called hound, while dog is used to indicate a canine that is fierce and big. The term ”dog” became the common term, which is broadening its meaning. The meaning of ”hound” became narrow as it now only refers to hunting dogs. Dogs of smaller breeds, especially, including Chihuahuas and toy dogs should never be called hounds.
Some of the narrowing and broadening of the meaning of words happened randomly. The question whether someone drinks refers to imbibing alcoholic drinks rather than all liquids. Previously, enjoying music means enjoying classical music, nothing else. When you say you enjoy reading today, it more or less means that the person is reading fiction instead of books on various subjects including history, science, nature and the like.
Intuitive and transformative shift
The changing of the meaning of words follows a mild transformative and intuitive direction. In the old days ”meat” referred to all items related to food, which is why ”candy” is called sweetmeat. Now meat solely pertain to flesh, which, while narrowed stayed within the sphere of food.
Some of the shift was lateral. Bird for example used to refer to a baby animal before it became the overall term for flying animals, which used to be called ”fugol.” The latter narrowed and changed to ”fowl” and now refers to birds raised in farms such as hens, geese, ducks and turkeys.
The meanings of many English words today are very far from the original because of implications.
One of them is the word ”audition” that seems to have the root word that refers to ”audio.” Today, when you hear the term, what easily comes to mind is a person trying out for a film or play.
However, when ”audition” first came to be used, the word was used by doctors to mean that a patient’s hearing would be better once the ears are cleared of whatever is blocking the sound.
In 19th century England, the term for tryouts became ”hearings” because at that time trying out for plays means listening to a person reciting something, which writers turned into something fancier by using the word ”audition.”
The word stuck and used primarily to mean trying out for a performance while hearing became the term that refers to sound perception.
Commodity now refers to staple products the quantity of which remains constant regardless of producers. The term is commonly used when referring to futures contracts that ensure uniformity in price even when the market fluctuates.
When the word was first used, it referred to comfort, for example, in accommodation, meaning indulging in personal comforts, such as enjoying the pleasure of staying in bed or spreading your body on a cozy sofa.
The current meaning is very distant for the original intent – from feeling comfortable to being products in the futures market, which is about financial contracts.
The word ”fine” came from the French word, ”fin” or end. Today, it has evolved to mean something that is ”the best,” ”the ultimate” or ”the top of the line.” Thus, initially fine, means either something of high quality or the end. The high quality meaning is what made it into the English language, which became associated with something delicate. It implies top quality as the item was produced with high precision.
However, there are other used for the word fine. When someone is asked how they are doing, the standard reply is he/she is fine. In this context, the word fine implies that the person is not hurt, is feeling great or in good health. The meaning extends to other things, such as the payment for a minor violation.
When you watch a French film, you are still likely see the word ”fin” at the end before the credits. But outside France, fine means something else.
The original meaning of the word ”minority” was a ”small portion” of something, which means that it was a technical term. However, today the word is generally used as a demographic term. When you say minority, the implication is that you refer to people of color. In the minds of many Americans, minority refers to Latino and Black people. So even if the Whites were outnumbered by Latinos or Blacks, they would never be referred to as minority because they do not have dark complexions.
Merry is a word the original meaning of which is very different from how it is used today. In the past, ”merry” meant ”short.” It is because something short or brief is pleasant. Now merry means joy, gaiety, full of merriment, fun, lively and so on. The English language already had a word ”short” in the early days, however, it meant ”sliced off.”
Merry had a long past as well. It started from the steppes in Ukraine where most of the languages in Europe originated. Merry came from the word ”mregh” that became ”brakhion” in Greece. It was a term used for the upper arm, as physically, the lower arm is longer than the upper arm. Brakhion entered the Latin language as ‘brakh” but ended as a pastry term, as in brachitella or bread that resembles folded arms. Old German adopted the term as brezitella that morphed into brezel in Middle High German, which is now known as pretzel.
In the French language, brach referred to shoulder straps that extended to mean the chemise worn by children. Brach evolved into brassiere which was shortened to ”bra.”
In a sense, pretzel and bra are the same as merry, although the evolution that happened gradually means that it would be impossible today to use the three words in a sentence that would make sense.
Awful and awesome
Both words came from ”awe,” which is an Old English word that originally meant dread, terror or fear. When used to refer to God, it meant respectful or reverential fear. Awesome and awful used to be synonyms, but in the 19th century however, awful became a term that is synonymous to the emotion’s negative aspect thus it usually refers to something very bad or something frightful. Awesome on the other hand became the term used to mean mind-boggling, stunning or marvelous, which were cited initially in a 1980 publication called Official Preppy Handbook.
The meaning of words will continue to change as long as there are speakers of the language. Some of the meanings shift to become the opposite of the original while some become complimentary or otherwise.
From the Anglo-Norman language to classical Latin to English, the word ”nice” used to refer to someone ”ignorant” from the Latin word ”nescius.” Starting from the 1300s up to the 1600s the meaning was the same – ignorant, foolish or silly. But during the same period, nice took on different meanings, from being dissolute, wanton, cowardly, effeminate, lazy, intricate, sluggish, refined to elegant.
In the 16th century the meanings changed to sharp, attentive, meticulous. When the 18th century arrived, the meanings lost much of its prestige; it gained the meaning we use today, such as pleasant or agreeable.
Dinner started from the French word ”disner” that originated from the Latin term, ”disjejunare” or breaking the fast. Thus it originally referred to the first meal you have for the day. Through the evolution of the word, it was used to refer to the day’s main meal, which is still used in some circles. For the fashionable and professional classes today, as mentioned in the Oxford English Dictionary, dinner now refers to the largest meal taken in the evening. The last meal served during the day is called supper, which is seldom used today. The current meaning is a light meal in the early evening if you had dinner in the middle of the day. You could also have supper before you go to bed.
Naughty people in the 1300s were those who had naught or nothing. It meant they were either needy or poor. A millennium later, the meaning shifted to someone morally wicked or bad or someone who was worth nothing. So the meaning changed from having nothing to someone sexually provocative, promiscuous or licentious. But in the late 17th century other meanings were added to naughty. These are gentler terms, often used to refer to children who display misbehavior, disobedience or mischievousness.
Several more English words have changed meanings. Silly for example used to mean blessed or worthy before the meanings became vulnerable or weak. Today, it is mainly used to refer to someone foolish. Some are more difficult to comprehend, such as clue coming from the word ”clew” meaning a ball of yarn to being important pieces of evidence. Fathom used to mean, ”to encircle with your arm” whereas today it means understanding something after spending time to think about it.
It does not matter if the meanings of many English words continue to change. The human translators of Day Translations, Inc. will always use the most applicable words to accurately translate your documents. They are all native speakers and located around the world to serve your translation requirements quickly and efficiently. We serve clients 24/7, 365 days a year. So contact us for translation services anytime by calling us at 1-800-969-6853 or sending us an email at Contact us.