Leaning on the Evolution of Meanings



Words and their meanings change as people and society do. Just as we replaced travel by horse with motorized transit, so have we altered words to serve what we want and need from the era we live in. In some cases, those words have even become the opposites of what they used to signify.

At the same time, with the world’s most total speakers (about 1.3 billion, including those who speak it as a second language), English is bound to have disparate preferences. Consensus about whether changes are useful or desirable will vary; contemporary utility will determine a word meaning’s lifespan.

As a meaning transforms over many years, often up to centuries, it may often co-exist with the original definition for a long period before replacing it. The following are words with currently enduring, accepted meanings that time has notably altered. Each word’s approximate century of first use is noted as well.

Word Early Meaning Current Meaning
awful (13th) worthy of awe (awe-full) extremely bad
backlog (17th) largest log in the hearth large number of jobs to be done
bully (16th) sweetheart intimidating, quarrelsome person
clue (9th) ball of yarn bit of evidence for a solution
dapper (15th) brave stylish, neat, trim
egregious (16th) distinguished, eminent flagrantly bad
fathom (9th) to encircle with one’s arms to understand after much thought
flirt (16th) to flick something away, act briskly to act amorously without seriousness
girl (13th) young person (either gender) young female
guy (19th) frightful figure man, boy, fellow
naughty (14th) having nothing (naught) disobedient, improper
nice (13th) foolish, simple, ignorant kind, pleasing, agreeable
matrix (14th) female breeding animal pattern of lines and spaces
prestigious (16th) involving trickery or illusion honored

We may not always be able to predict the future, but we can safely assume that some of the words we use with conviction now will mean something else in generations to come. Until then, we will continue to embrace and apply what our present words provide us for the awe-full power of human writing and speech.

Posted on Tuesday, March 31, 2020, at 11:00 pm

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2 Comments on Leaning on the Evolution of Meanings

2 responses to “Leaning on the Evolution of Meanings”

  1. PJHauser says:

    We can add reticent. Original meaning, silent. New meaning, reluctant.

    • Addition of reticent is an interesting suggestion; however, it differs from others in the table in that it has not made a complete transition from “silent.” Merriam-Webster shows definition 1 as “inclined to be silent or uncommunicative in speech.”

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