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Old words with new meanings?
August 7, 2011 12:24 PM   Subscribe

What are some words whose definitions have changed significantly in the last few centuries?

One example would be "awful" (which no longer indicates awe-inspiring).

(I'm not looking for slang like "gay" or repurposed words like "web".)
posted by Shelf to Writing & Language (58 answers total) 20 users marked this as a favorite
 
similar to awful: terrific.
posted by modernserf at 12:28 PM on August 7, 2011 [1 favorite]


"Cute" used to mean "clever".
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 12:30 PM on August 7, 2011


Cute can still mean clever.
posted by dfriedman at 12:32 PM on August 7, 2011 [1 favorite]


[Silly] once meant happy, cheerful, blessed.
posted by mateuslee at 12:33 PM on August 7, 2011


Gay is slang? Neither gay=homosexual nor gay=cheerful...

Preview: what mollymayhem said.
posted by justsomebodythatyouusedtoknow at 12:39 PM on August 7, 2011


artificial, nice, awful, brave, manufacture, prove

And many more can be found via Google.
posted by wryly at 12:42 PM on August 7, 2011 [1 favorite]


enormity - used to indicate monstrous wickedness, not just size.

Moot as a noun used to mean open to debate, not irrelevant, though moot is still sometimes used in this sense as a verb.
posted by psycheslamp at 12:43 PM on August 7, 2011 [1 favorite]


Many terms of coolness or approval are exaggerations.

awesome - is just "really neat" now when back in the day it was something that inspired awe - like seeing a canyon for the first time ever, or perceiving the glory of God
posted by carlh at 12:43 PM on August 7, 2011


Sorry everyone, "gay" was a bad example. You get the idea, though.
posted by Shelf at 12:49 PM on August 7, 2011


At the end of the 19th century, entrepreneur meant "middleman" or "enabler".

With the Gilded Age coming to a close, the term "capitalist" was beginning to have a generally bad connotation, so there was a conscious move to substitute the word "entrepreneur" for "capitalist". It gave the big-money guys more of a risk-taking, up-from-their-own-bootstraps kind of vibe.
posted by Benny Andajetz at 12:49 PM on August 7, 2011


Terrible may qualify (as in the definition for "great" or "formidable"). We still kind of use it, when we say things like "terrible disappointment," but it's my perception that people tend to think that just means extremely bad, etc.
posted by asciident at 12:51 PM on August 7, 2011


I only learned the 'full of badness' meaning for 'enormity', and am frequently brought up short while reading by the new usage.
posted by benito.strauss at 12:52 PM on August 7, 2011


Computer.
posted by Nomyte at 12:52 PM on August 7, 2011 [1 favorite]


A more precise time frame would be useful, as many words have shifted a fair degree over time. But fewer and less radically as that time decreases.

First world and third world have changed pretty drastically in just fifty years. From meaning "US and allies" and "neutral" respectively, they now mean "economically developed" and "economically developing".
posted by Jehan at 1:00 PM on August 7, 2011


How about decimate? Used to mean 'to reduce by one-tenth', now everyone uses it to mean 'to reduce by a large margin'.
posted by Gordafarin at 1:03 PM on August 7, 2011 [1 favorite]


"Literally", "totally".
posted by MuffinMan at 1:10 PM on August 7, 2011


"proof" - several centuries ago it meant something like a test or successfully passing a test (as in "fireproof", passing a test of fire, or the proof of distilled spirits - the percentage alcohol it tests at), then gradually came to refer to "evidence" or the logical chain of reasoning that demonstrates something to be true.
posted by XMLicious at 1:17 PM on August 7, 2011


'slut' used to refer to a lazy girl or woman, someone sloppy in their work and appearance
posted by supermedusa at 1:21 PM on August 7, 2011


Propaganda used to mean information, now the word has a connotation of false or spun data.
posted by Cranberry at 1:22 PM on August 7, 2011


There's a ton in Bill Bryson's The Mother Tongue, where he referes to this drift in meaning as "catachresis." Here's a bunch of his examples:

Counterfeit - legitimate copy
Brave - cowardice (see: bravado)
Zeal was originally a perjorative term (see: zealot)
Crafty was positive and enthusiasim was negative
Garble - sort out
Manufacture - made by hand
Obsequious - flexible
Notorious - famous
Amusing - pleasing to look at
Awful - deserving of awe (as the OP mentioned)
Artificial - full of skillful artifice
Egregious - eminent or admirable
posted by zombieflanders at 1:31 PM on August 7, 2011 [2 favorites]


Condescension - used to mean the bestowal of attention or favours upon someone of lower social rank; now it means behaving in a manner calculated to make someone feel inferior.
posted by fearnothing at 1:36 PM on August 7, 2011


Wonderful . . .
posted by fivesavagepalms at 1:51 PM on August 7, 2011


Amateur did not imply less competent.

Fulsome meant full, not full of it.

Nervous meant physically strong and resolute.
posted by jamjam at 1:56 PM on August 7, 2011


Since you didn't specify English, the German word Gift used to mean the same as it does in English. Later it became a euphemism for poison. Both meanings existed at the same time until the 18th century, when the euphemism replaced the original meaning.

Similarly, the French word poison is derived from the Latin word potio, meaning drink (related with potable water, or potion).
posted by I_pity_the_fool at 1:58 PM on August 7, 2011 [1 favorite]


Previously
posted by ElDiabloConQueso at 2:14 PM on August 7, 2011


Peruse
posted by bq at 2:36 PM on August 7, 2011


Patronise
posted by MuffinMan at 2:47 PM on August 7, 2011


"Fond" used to mean something closer to foolish than affectionate. "Nice" also used to mean foolish or silly, and also overly fastidious.
posted by apricot at 2:58 PM on August 7, 2011


To table an issue used to meant to put it on the table and talk about or deal with it. Now, to table an issue means to sweep it off the table and delay dealing with it until another time.
posted by arcticwoman at 3:15 PM on August 7, 2011


I've heard the Brits still use "to table" with the older meaing.
posted by benito.strauss at 3:29 PM on August 7, 2011


There are a bunch of examples in the relevant Wikipedia article (plus lots of fun terminology to describe and categorize these types of changes!).
posted by ootandaboot at 3:33 PM on August 7, 2011


"Enthusiasm" once meant something like religious possession. So did "ecstasy" (we still use it with an echo of that sense).
posted by adamrice at 4:03 PM on August 7, 2011


I've heard the Brits still use "to table" with the older meaing

I would only get the original meaning.
posted by pompomtom at 4:06 PM on August 7, 2011


"Bland" used to mean pleasing to the senses. Now it usually means insipid or unnoticeable.
posted by brianogilvie at 4:09 PM on August 7, 2011


Nunnery Modern dictionaries only list one definition of the word, which is, of course, a convent. However, if you look up "nunnery" in a dictionary of archaic words and uses, you will see that "nunnery" did mean both a convent and a brothel in Shakespeare's day. Its meaning as a "brothel" was colloquial, though, even in Tudor England. Despite the use of "nunnery" as "house of ill repute" in Shakespearean England, there can be no question that Hamlet is referring to the standard definition of the word �
posted by JujuB at 4:12 PM on August 7, 2011


How about decimate? Used to mean 'to reduce by one-tenth', now everyone uses it to mean 'to reduce by a large margin'.

Incidentally, I worked on a (very silly) play recently that included the line "The robots decimated 90% of the population." When I tried to explain that this implied the robots killed 81% of the population, I was scoffed at.
posted by HeroZero at 4:15 PM on August 7, 2011 [4 favorites]


A villan used to refer to a farmer or a commoner and did not have any connotation related to maliciousness.
posted by chara at 4:18 PM on August 7, 2011


A passage in my sixth grade English text (longer ago than I care to think) told us that "the knave's brat is a crafty counterfeiter," would once have been understood as "the servant's child is a skillful imitator."

"Nice" used to mean silly. "Silly" used to mean pointless. "Kind" meant something like acting properly for one's position.

Some words have generalized while others became more specific. "Starve" just meant die. "Deer" were any game, and "corn" was any grain.

Someone interested in this could have a fine afternoon leafing randomly through the Oxford Dictionary.
posted by wjm at 4:23 PM on August 7, 2011


I tried to explain that this implied the robots killed 81% of the population, I was scoffed at

Surely they'd kill 9% of the population?
posted by pompomtom at 4:34 PM on August 7, 2011 [5 favorites]


A villan used to refer to a farmer or a commoner and did not have any connotation related to maliciousness.

Villein vs. Villain
posted by infini at 4:53 PM on August 7, 2011


flammable.
posted by plinth at 4:54 PM on August 7, 2011


plinth, do you mean inflammable? (which means "flames could totally happen")
posted by titanium_geek at 4:58 PM on August 7, 2011


What we call flirting now used to be referred to as "making love" as in, "He made love to me from across the room."
posted by eleslie at 5:01 PM on August 7, 2011 [1 favorite]


Decimation sounds a bit excessive. and the meaning has loosened.
posted by theora55 at 5:04 PM on August 7, 2011


I always assumed "spaz" meant that someone was easily distractable/hyper, and "lame" meant that something was kind of pathetic. (I assumed it was referring to the fabric lame.) Apparently those are not the actual meanings of those words.
posted by jenfullmoon at 5:28 PM on August 7, 2011


In the 18th century, "conversation" meant "intercourse" in both the verbal and the physical senses.

"Presently", in the 16th & 17th century, meant "instantly"; it now means more like 'soon'.

"Silly" was "innocent/pure", not foolish.
posted by jrochest at 5:39 PM on August 7, 2011


Flammable v. inflammable.
posted by patheral at 5:57 PM on August 7, 2011


The decadent Whatleys vs. decadent cookies.
posted by porpoise at 6:09 PM on August 7, 2011


didn't "livid" used to refer to a ghastly pale color? Seems like these days it refers to a certain type of anger.
also, it'd be remiss not to mention the N word, despite your ban on slang. I have a book on my shelf that used to be on all the advanced HS reading lists called "The N***** of the Narcissus." Imagine the flap that would cause today!
posted by Ys at 6:10 PM on August 7, 2011


didn't "livid" used to refer to a ghastly pale color?

"Livid" is the color of bruises, from the Latin for "bluish." Surprisingly, it's got the same PIE root as the Russian for "plum."

In the 18th century, "conversation" meant "intercourse" in both the verbal and the physical senses.

Of course, "intercourse" also had a much more general meaning of "things that transpire between two parties." You can Google for phrases like "judicial intercourse" in old books.

"He made love to me from across the room."

With a ten-foot pole, I suspect.
posted by Nomyte at 6:33 PM on August 7, 2011


Gentleman used to mean a well bred and educated member of the gentry, usually land owning. Now it means a polite male. Quite a switch.
posted by forthright at 6:50 PM on August 7, 2011 [1 favorite]


Oh, and I forgot to mention my "favorite" redefinition of a word, though I'm stretching the OP's call for "last few centuries":

According to the Wikipedia entry for Schizophrenia it is often misused to refer to split personality. The article says the first known misuse was by T. S. Eliot in 1933 (not even a full century ago, sorry).
posted by forthright at 6:55 PM on August 7, 2011


Promiscuous!

Back in the mid-1800s, in the US, it meant mixed male and female, as in "he lectured to a promiscuous audience."

I love using this one with college students when I show them how to use the Oxford English Dictionary.
posted by mareli at 7:07 PM on August 7, 2011


Magazine.
Although the old usage is still found on ships (especially military) or as a part of a firearm, the idea a magazine is a periodical or collection of stories is more prevalent now.
posted by Trivia Newton John at 7:16 PM on August 7, 2011


Bully
posted by perspicio at 12:05 AM on August 8, 2011


A "geek" used to refer to a sideshow circus freak who performed acts like biting the heads off live chickens.
posted by illenion at 1:03 AM on August 8, 2011


Cool once only meant something somewhat cold. Now...
posted by ultrabuff at 7:41 AM on August 8, 2011


Egregious is my favorite example. The meaning changed from "distinguished" to "conspicuously bad".
posted by MsMolly at 9:55 AM on August 8, 2011


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