English words and terms that have changed meaning?
September 8, 2010 5:02 PM   Subscribe

What are some English words and terms that have changed meaning significantly in the last century or so?

I regularly pull out items (images, news pieces, ads) from our library collections to show off to the public. A lot of our material is from the mid-1800s to the early/mid-1900s, and of course a lot of the language used then has changed meaning since.

We have a huge amount of stuff digitised, so I usually find things by searching for specific words and terms. What are some words that might bring up some interesting and surprising results?

One example I have is a news item about a man described as a "second-grade computer".
posted by Dandeson Coates, Sec'y to Writing & Language (69 answers total) 22 users marked this as a favorite
Maybe not quite as far back as what you're looking for, but the first thing that popped into my head was router/router.
posted by ElDiabloConQueso at 5:06 PM on September 8, 2010

no discrimination intended. But "gay" meant to be happy not too long ago. Now everyone refers to it as a negative thing or homosexuals.
posted by NotSoSiniSter at 5:10 PM on September 8, 2010 [1 favorite]

posted by The Whelk at 5:13 PM on September 8, 2010

the first thing that popped into my head was router/router.

The meaning of 'router' hasn't changed. A new usage has emerged, but the old one is still in regular use.
posted by jon1270 at 5:14 PM on September 8, 2010

Best answer: Some surprising changes here.
posted by shinybaum at 5:16 PM on September 8, 2010 [11 favorites]

Best answer: I don't know how strict your criteria are. All my examples still retain their old meaning, at least to some extent:

facebook (with this one, I suspect the new meaning is truly replacing the old one -- who would still use "facebook" to mean a hard-copy school directory with photos?)

twitter, tweet (I could see the traditional meanings going away because more and more people will be unable to think of anything but the website)


video (increasingly used to mean digital rather than videotape)

cell (as in cell phone)

axe (as in guitar)

posted by John Cohen at 5:19 PM on September 8, 2010

I agree "gay". I had a school friend who's name was Gay, she changed the spelling to "Gae" in the late 70s, early 80s.
posted by 6:1 at 5:24 PM on September 8, 2010

Perhaps decimate? This one bugs the hell out of me.
posted by adamk at 5:31 PM on September 8, 2010 [3 favorites]

"nice" has changed over time, but more like over 300 versus 100.

"computer" used to mean someone who did a lot of calculations - once upon a time phone bills were tallied by hand using huger numbers of clerical workers. Most of the math for the original atomic bombs was done by hand using legions of human computers who had no idea what they were working on.
posted by GuyZero at 5:32 PM on September 8, 2010

posted by found missing at 5:35 PM on September 8, 2010

I'll tell you this: "momentarily" seems to be becoming a lost cause, and it grieves me more than I can say.

No, Continental airlines, the plane will not be leaving momentarily. It will be leaving SOON.

Also, "careen" used to mean to tip or lean, not to career around recklessly. I wish it still did.
posted by Decani at 5:40 PM on September 8, 2010 [1 favorite]

"Hopefully" seems to no longer be an adverb.
posted by pompomtom at 5:42 PM on September 8, 2010

Response by poster: Excellent link, shinybaum. A lot of those changes predate the period of these sources, but thanks to 'cute' I found this:
An Austrian Ruse
Russians Too Cute
Which gets even better (and much much worse) when you read the whole story:
The Austrians recently withdrew to the outer forts of Przemyd. The Russians, suspecting a ruse, drove cattle towards the forts, and the cattle were blown to bits through treading on mines.
And 'twitter' gives me a poem called Twitter Twit, which I will definitely be using.

Please keep them coming!
posted by Dandeson Coates, Sec'y at 5:42 PM on September 8, 2010

"Precious" seems to have gone from meaning personally valuable to "too cute".
posted by Netzapper at 5:47 PM on September 8, 2010

The phrase "make love." It used to mean something like "engage in couple talk," then it became a euphemism for sex. It's odd to run into the "talk to" meaning in old books.

"Rap." In the 70's, it was short for "rapport." To "rap with" somebody mean talk to them. Now it's the name of a musical style. (My memory of the seventies is pretty vague, so this might be a little off.)
posted by nangar at 5:52 PM on September 8, 2010

One more from technology -- wireless (radio -> wifi -> already changing again, it seems)
posted by devbrain at 5:54 PM on September 8, 2010

Perhaps decimate? This one bugs the hell out of me.

The Online Etymolgy Dictionary dates the more general usage of decimate to the 1660s. (And it astonishes me that it declares that a usage which is ~350 years old is used "incorrectly.")

And if it were limited to its original meaning of "reduced by one-tenth," I dare say the word would be virtually unknown today. How often would anyone have a chance to use it?
posted by DevilsAdvocate at 5:57 PM on September 8, 2010 [5 favorites]

How often would anyone have a chance to use it?

"Tithing has decimated my earnings."
posted by found missing at 5:59 PM on September 8, 2010 [10 favorites]

I can't quite tell if you're looking for words that have changed meaning through misuse, or through transmutation, or through the sort of French way of adapting a currently used word to a new process or thingy.

If it's the first, I'll second decimate, momentarily, and careen, and I'll add prodigal.

For the others, I'm not coming up with anything, but I found this interesting article.
posted by punchtothehead at 6:03 PM on September 8, 2010

posted by cmgonzalez at 6:07 PM on September 8, 2010

If you're including slang terms, allow me to draw your attention to Batman's Greatest Boner.
posted by mhum at 6:08 PM on September 8, 2010 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: punchtothehead: I'm not too worried about the method of change. I'm mainly after words that can break their (now-)normal usage context, so they appear in the historical items in ways people find unusual. In short, teh funnies. :)
posted by Dandeson Coates, Sec'y at 6:12 PM on September 8, 2010

Best answer: There are a lot of more conceptual terms that have changed a lot in meaning that we don't often think about; in fact, you'll see period films that are supposed to be set in earlier times in the past century that use these words because they're so much a part of how we see the world that we don't even notice that they shape our view of it.

A lot of them are part of the cluster of psychological terms that really only gained their current meaning through popularization of a technical sense. For example, people now often say that a person is anal, meaning anal-retentive and harking back to Freud's ruminations on the subject; but that's one of the more glaring ones. Others include conditioning, projecting, and bipolar, all of which have more literal meanings which have more or less been supplanted by their new pop-psychology meanings.

Self-esteem is an interesting one; this isn't to say that it precisely means something completely different – it also meant "to value oneself" back then – but once upon a time it was largely a term of derision or disapproval, eg 'look at that arrogant prick; he's so full of self-esteem.'

One of the more interesting ones for me is values, which derives in its modern (remarkably ubiquitous) sense from Nietzsche's use of the German word 'Werte.' It's hard for moderns to realize this, but until it became clear that the new left was winning in the 70s that word wasn't even used much by those who knew of it. Nietzsche became popular largely through Freud, and Freud's influence here, though it's proven lasting, took a while to catch on. Before some time in the 60s, 'value' almost invariably simply meant something like 'the amount that one prizes, needs, or desires a thing;' whereas after that point it started to acquire the modern, Nietzschean sense of meaning 'the things – and in particular the actions – that one thinks are good – in the sense of right;' and it now carries the implication (which Nietzsche certainly intended) that one's own values are not necessarily someone else's. That is, by implication, it denies the absolute character of morality. Whereas a hundred years ago the English word 'values' didn't generally have a moral sense at all.

Another one with interesting shadings is ideology. Ideology is a term that dates from the time of the French revolution, when it was used by a minor philosopher (I think we might say pundit today) to describe his system of ideas; however, it was quickly taken up as an insult against him and a term of mocking, and people were thereafter often accused of being 'ideologues.' However, the term was really popularized by that miner of the French revolution, Karl Marx, who used 'ideology' frequently as a technical term in his system. To him, 'ideology' was a form of false consciousness; someone who subscribes to an ideology is someone who has taken on a worldview irrationally, simply because it was taught to him and he hasn't questioned it. Karl Marx never speaks of his own system as an 'ideology;' he believes that he is above ideology, and that his system is the truth. Whereas even many Marxists now use the term as a neutral term, and talk for example about how Marx differs 'ideologically' from Engels. I think that's a big change; the conviction that 'ideology' meant someone was being irrational and wrong has disappeared, and 'ideology' simply seems to mean 'set of ideas.' That might be kind of a stretch, though, I guess.

A hundred years ago, cybernetics was a French word, not an English word, and it meant 'study of government.' It was only through various intellectual streams in the middle of the century that it came to mean 'complex communications theory' and eventually took on a sci-fi computer-type vibe by being applied to the internet when it was called 'cyberspace.'

I'm sure there are lots more.
posted by koeselitz at 6:18 PM on September 8, 2010 [11 favorites]

posted by k8t at 6:18 PM on September 8, 2010

posted by k8t at 6:19 PM on September 8, 2010

intimate - used to mean "cozy" / "very personal," now "sexual" / "very personal"

molest - used to mean "harass" / "bother"
posted by nangar at 6:23 PM on September 8, 2010

Response by poster: mhum: Actually, ideas for old slang would be great too. However, as great a fan I am of Batman catching the Joker by his own boner, it sadly may not be quite the tone required of our esteemed institution.
posted by Dandeson Coates, Sec'y at 6:23 PM on September 8, 2010

"Enervate" has pretty much flipped in customary modern usage, particularly among political speechifiers, but that's difficult to show via the archives.
posted by holgate at 6:27 PM on September 8, 2010

Thong, rubber (eraser, rainboots, or condom), hooking up, faggot, dumb (being unable to speak or stupid)

Also, sort of related: in high school, all the guitarists, violinists, and bassists had laughs about G strings, meaning, of course, the string on an instrument that is usually tuned to G. "Hey guys, I just broke my g string!"
posted by wayland at 6:28 PM on September 8, 2010 [1 favorite]

Silent majority.
posted by worldswalker at 6:32 PM on September 8, 2010 [3 favorites]

Oh – drive is always a good one; meant the same thing, but the secondary meaning today was the primary meaning then, and vice versa, so it's often interestingly confusing to see in older texts.

One that's utterly changed its meaning in the last ten years is the word 'swipe,' which even when I was a child meant 'steal.' Now it's taken, I think, as a portmanteau of 'slide' and 'wipe' and indicates the motion you make when you use a credit card at a store.


  • Humor ('bodily fluid')

  • Physic ('a regular medicine, usually a laxative')

  • Intercourse (in the sense of conversation)

  • molest ('to bother or annoy')

  • curious ('strange')

  • license (always meant freedom, but used to have the sense of 'shocking lack of restraint')

  • jet ('a fountain of fluid,' and speaking of which...)

  • ejaculation ('a sudden loud outburst, something shouted or screamed or at least loudly interjected')

  • genius (still meant, as it does in French, 'mind' or 'spirit,' not prowess thereof)

  • posted by koeselitz at 6:42 PM on September 8, 2010 [1 favorite]

    Machinist used to mean planner or strategist, ie machinations.
    posted by shinybaum at 6:48 PM on September 8, 2010

    Dear, in addition to the current meaning, used to also be used for things which were expensive; you can find it used as such in things written up into the 1940s. I think the underlying meaning for both usages is just something that is valuable.
    posted by frobozz at 6:57 PM on September 8, 2010

    pond scum..
    posted by marimeko at 6:58 PM on September 8, 2010

    For an annoying change in phraseology rather than meaning, consider how no one these days seems to be able to say "It's déjà vu" without adding a Yogiism.
    posted by found missing at 7:06 PM on September 8, 2010

    posted by Maxwell_Smart at 7:06 PM on September 8, 2010 [1 favorite]

    posted by birdherder at 7:17 PM on September 8, 2010

    posted by AloneOssifer at 7:18 PM on September 8, 2010

    Pneumatic. Used to mean something relating to the spirit/soul of a person (pneuma relating to the Holy Ghost or God's "breath" in man, therefore a soul). Now it's something air-powered. Apparently in the 50s it could also mean a chick with big boobs.
    posted by Eyebrows McGee at 7:27 PM on September 8, 2010

    I remember the word "masher" coming up in old Popeye cartoons, meaning someone who made unwanted sexual advances towards women, I guess? I imagine it also meant "something that mashes" back then, but it's pretty much lost the Olive Oyl meaning and now generally means the tool you use to make mashed potatoes.
    posted by lore at 7:41 PM on September 8, 2010

    scan. used to mean "examine minutely." now means "give cursory glance."

    posted by toodleydoodley at 7:48 PM on September 8, 2010

    In the 19thC Australian usage: "pimp" used to refer to a police informant, ie. a snitch.
    posted by Fiasco da Gama at 7:50 PM on September 8, 2010

    discriminate - make fine distinctions (as in "discriminating taste")

    psychic - mental

    cab - short for cabriolet (a kind of carriage)

    traffic - commerce, communication

    truck - exchange, barter; kind of handcart for moving heavy items

    sedan - a covered chair with poles attached for carrying dignitaries

    car - cart, chariot (originally), passenger compartment (of a balloon, elevator, etc.)
    posted by nangar at 8:01 PM on September 8, 2010

    The phrase "make love." It used to mean something like "engage in couple talk," then it became a euphemism for sex. It's odd to run into the "talk to" meaning in old books.

    See it in action in the Marx Bros. A Night At The Opera.
    posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 8:09 PM on September 8, 2010

    along those lines i think "to know" or "knowing" used to refer to having sex as well.
    posted by tastycracker at 8:20 PM on September 8, 2010



    posted by JimN2TAW at 8:28 PM on September 8, 2010

    Frozbozz, I don't know about elsewhere but dear is still commonly used to mean expensive in Australia.
    posted by Wantok at 8:29 PM on September 8, 2010 [1 favorite]

    battery - artillery, a set of something (batteries are sets of accumulator cells)
    posted by nangar at 8:34 PM on September 8, 2010

    Response by poster: Thanks everyone, I've got a lot of good leads to follow up on now, and a few items ready to tweet out already.
    posted by Dandeson Coates, Sec'y at 8:59 PM on September 8, 2010

    awful - used to mean "full of awe" (similar to current use of "awesome"), didn't have the negative connotation until later.
    posted by sinderile at 10:15 PM on September 8, 2010

    posted by Neiltupper at 10:20 PM on September 8, 2010

    Altered English is a great resource for the kind of thing you're looking for [my previous recommendation]. I'd give you some examples, but I left my copy at work!
    posted by hurdy gurdy girl at 10:56 PM on September 8, 2010

    Inspired by the blue: "cereal", which once meant a grass crop, is now apparently is a kind of confectionary.
    posted by pompomtom at 11:06 PM on September 8, 2010

    Digital is a good technology one. A hundred years ago, all it was talking about was fingers or numbers.
    posted by chorltonmeateater at 11:45 PM on September 8, 2010

    Enormity. Once referred to moral outrages, now is commonly used to mean what enormousness was supposed to mean.
    posted by clockzero at 12:09 AM on September 9, 2010

    Hot; Wicked
    posted by MuffinMan at 12:56 AM on September 9, 2010

    "Gay" used to be a euphemism for being a prostitute. A cartoon in an 1857 issue of Punch, a well-known satirical and humorous magazine in the UK, showed two miserable prostitutes standing in a rainstorm waiting for punters, and one saying to the other, "How long have you been gay?" It's mentioned in the Wikipedia entry for Gay.
    posted by aqsakal at 1:13 AM on September 9, 2010

    I predict the word "literally" will change its meaning *this* century.
    posted by applesurf at 2:35 AM on September 9, 2010

    Dear is still common as 'expensive' in the UK, too. To be honest I would file quite a few of the nominations here under "gained a meaning (old one still in use)" rather than "changed meaning": traffic, curious, jet, molest...
    posted by Slyfen at 3:40 AM on September 9, 2010

    The Linguist List posting for the recently released Corpus of Historical American English covers some of this ground. (Thanks to iamkimiam for mentioning it, otherwise I wouldn't have clicked through the LL mention of it!)

    One of my favorite reference/fun books is Dewdroppers, Waldos, and Slackers: a decade-by-decade guide to the vanishing vocabulary of the twentieth century.
    posted by knile at 4:29 AM on September 9, 2010

    I'd suggest that the response "I'm good" to the question " How are you?" is relatively recent.

    Being good used to imply moral virtue, "I'm well" used to be the standard reply.
    posted by multivalent at 5:02 AM on September 9, 2010

    pompomtom reminds me that "corn" used to mean any grain (or even grainy pieces of stuff) and in American English means "maize" now. This one pops up here and there: "corned beef" refers to the grains of salt on the beef (it was years before I know it wasn't beef somehow cooked with maize) ... a friend of mine who's British tried to make cornbread and when it said "cornflour" she just used wheat flour in the recipe and couldn't figure out what was wrong with it. We pointed out it meant MAIZEflour and she had a giant duh moment. (She knew corn was maize, but for some reason it didn't click with that particular recipe.)

    You don't see it as much anymore -- corn-as-maize seems to be entrenching itself in worldwide English -- but there are plenty of slightly older British English books that use corn for grain; I was reading a 19th-century Bible translation where they kept going on about "corn" and I was briefly super-confused because I was absolutely positive that Biblical-era farmers did not have access corn and what the hell was wrong with the translator? Doh!
    posted by Eyebrows McGee at 5:29 AM on September 9, 2010

    "Sick" is something that seems to have had various meaning changes over the last little while. According to a diary that I kept when I was 14 (1981) 'sick' was used as a pejorative ie. school was so sick today, I hate it. And then it changed again in and became a compliment ie. that concert was fully sick! They fucking rocked!*

    Of course it still retains its original meaning, but those ones have definitely been added during my lifetime.

    *Disclaimer: I have never said that in my life.
    posted by h00py at 5:55 AM on September 9, 2010

    A long time ago, stink (and stench) could refer to any type of smell, good or bad.
    posted by kosmonaut at 5:57 AM on September 9, 2010

    posted by valadil at 7:07 AM on September 9, 2010

    "Dick" or "Private Dick" used to mean detective or P.I., as in Dick Tracy.
    posted by ShadePlant at 8:09 AM on September 9, 2010

    Science fiction writer made a whole story about words changing meanings: Poul Anderson's "A Tragedy of Errors":

    "Once in ancient days, the then King of England told Sir Christopher Wren, whose name is yet remembered, that the new Cathedral of St. Paul which he had designed was 'awful, pompous, and artificial.' Kings have seldom been noted for perspicacity. ... In the case of the king and Sir Christopher a compliment was intended. A later era would have used the words "awe-inspiring, stately, and ingeniously contrived."

    The story has to do with our attempting to make contact with a civilization that has been so terrorized by bandits who announce themselves as "friends" that the word has taken on a scary new meaning.
    posted by musofire at 9:45 AM on September 9, 2010

    I read a sexual encyclopaedia from the 1920s which kept using "eugenics" where now they would more likely use "birth control."
    posted by RobotHero at 11:33 AM on September 9, 2010

    Dude, dude.
    posted by pappy at 11:59 AM on September 9, 2010

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