The Old English word awe (ege) referred to fear, terror, or dread. Two derivative words, awful and awesome, both meant reverential wonder but evolved in completely opposite directions. Awful later took on a strictly negative connotation and, sometime in the mid-1900s, awesome came to mean extremely good.
Below are twelve more common words where meanings have evolved or changed over the centuries.
The Latin words audire and auditio(n) mean the ‘power of hearing or listening.’ In the 16th century, an audition was a medical term for unblocking a person’s hearing. In the 19th century, trying out for a play was called a ‘hearing’ where a playwright ‘listened’ to a person recite something. Writers began using audition as a fancier term for a ‘hearing’ and the word stuck.
In the Middle Ages, upon the death of an owner of land without legal heirs, ownership lapsed to the Crown. This was known as the Crown’s right of escheats, from the Old French eschete and the Latin excidere, meaning to ‘fall away. ‘ The keepers of a king’s escheats were known as cheaters. Thieves swindling ignorant people with false Royal Seals led to a mistrust of the king’s cheaters and hence the current sense and use of the word.
Cute is a shortened version of the word acute. It originally meant sharp or quick witted, and was often written as ‘cute — with the apostrophe indicating the missing a. In the United States during the 1830s, cute came to mean attractive, pretty, or charming. Vestiges of its original meaning can still be heard in phrases like “Don’t get cute with me!” referring to a person trying to be smart or clever.
The mid-16th century Latin word egregius meant “illustrious, select,” or “standing out (ex-) from the flock (greg-).” In short, egregious described something remarkably good! Possibly due to ironic use of the original meaning, the word has since taken the opposite tract with contemporary synonyms being “shocking, appalling, horrific, and terrible.”
Fathom is defined as 1) a measure of 6 feet and used in determining the depth of water and 2) to consider after much thought. The first definition was originally the span of a man’s outstretched arms and varied between 5-5 1⁄2 feet. To measure the depth of shallow waters, boatmen used a plumbed sounding line with fathom points. To fathom something figuratively, as in the second definition, means to ‘plumb the depths’ of an idea, where the result is sometimes unfathomable.
In the 16th century, fysel meant to “quietly break wind, or fart.” The contemporary word fizzle means 1) to make a hissing or sputtering sound, as in a gas forced out a narrow aperture and 2) to fail or die out, especially after a promising start. The second definition dates back to at least 1847 in American college slang as “a failure in an examination or a mumbled and stifled performance.”
Until recently, literally meant “in a literal manner or sense; exactly.” Literally is now often used for emphasis or to express strong feeling while not being completely true, e.g., “I was literally blown away by the movie.” Similarly used words would be real-ly, actual-ly, serious-ly, and total-ly. The egregious ‘misuse’ of this word is so totally widespread that the Oxford English Dictionary has literally added this as a definition. Seriously.
The Old English word mete referred to all food, even animal feed. When English moved into its Middle English era, it came to mean food from animal flesh. Meat in the figurative sense, as in “the meat of the matter,” or “a meaty novel,” appeared around the turn of the 20th century.
In its Ancient Greece origins, the Late Latin word myriad meant 10,000. In Aegean numerals used during the Bronze Age, it was represented by a circle with five dashes. Today, myriad is a very great or uncountable number of things, as in “The myriad lights of the city.”
Naught is defined as “zero, or nothing,” as in “All for naught.” In the 1300s, if someone called you naught-y, they were accusing you of being poor or needy. By the 1400s, naughty changed from “nothing” to “being bad or wicked.” Naughty could refer to a person who was behaving sexually provocative or, when applied to children, mischievous or disobedient. After six centuries, our current use of the word still refers to this sometimes stern, but more often playful childhood admonishment.
During the late Middle Ages, a spinster was, by definition, a person who spun yarn or thread. This low-paying occupation was held almost wholly by unmarried women. Spinsters who married were in a social position to find higher status work and better pay. In legal documents where one’s occupation was used as identification (like Smith, Baker, Cook, and Hunter), spinster came to denote an unmarried woman. It also held the pejorative connotation of a woman’s undesirability in marriage, e.g., old age.
You might also be interested in proverbs that are often mistaken! Learn the history of the words rooster and jaywalker. Did you know everyday and every day have different meanings? Learn all about these topics and more on the Kinney Brothers Publishing blog!
Check out the 68 Stories For Young Readers lesson packs from Kinney Brothers Publishing! The colorful series is also available as paperless lesson packs for the 21st-century classroom! Each lesson pack includes full lessons, audio, dialogues, and answer keys!