The Oddities of the English Language

Recently I received an e-mail from a blogger friend containing valuable information about the evolution of the English language.  He knows how much I enjoy digging in into the depths of this fascinating language which roots date back to the year 200 BC

One of the findings that really caught my attention is how several English words changed their meaning over time to become the opposite of their original usage.  Some of these words are:

  1. Nice
  2. Silly
  3. Awful
  4. Fizzle
  5. Wench
  6. Fathom
  7. Clue
  8. Myriad
  9. Naughty
  10. Eerie
  11. Spinster
  12. Bachelor
  13. Flint
  14. Guy
  15. Hussy
  16. Egregious
  17. Quell
  18. Divest
  19. Senile
  20. Meat

Words change meaning over time in ways that might surprise you. We sometimes notice words changing meaning under our noses (e.g., unique coming to mean “very unusual” rather than “one of a kind”—and it can be disconcerting. How in the world are we all going to communicate effectively if we allow words to shift in meaning like that?

Words have changed meaning—sometimes radically—as long as there have been words and speakers to speak them. It is most likely that you were not aware that all the above words is just a small sampling of words you may not have realized didn’t always mean what they mean today.

Take for instance the word “awful”.  A good dictionary worth its salt like the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, would define the word as, “very bad or unpleasant or extremely disagreeable or objectionable“.  The first known  use of awful is 1818.  Examples:

  • They heard the most awful sounds.
  • Awful things began to happen.
  • He has some awful disease.
  • That joke is just awful.
  • Who painted the house that awful color?

However, this negative definition of the word awful had a completely opposite meaning prior to the late 18th century.  Many grammarians take issue with the senses of awful and awfully that do not convey the etymological connection with awe.  The original definition of awful was:  “inspiring awe, filled with awe, or deeply respectful or reverential.  Awful things used to be “worthy of awe” for a variety of reasons, which is how we get expressions like “the awful majesty of God.”  Not today.  Over the years the meaning of the word swayed dramatically to mean quite the opposite.  The same linguistic phenomenon happened to other English words as you will find out in a moment if you finish reading this blog post.

I urge you to read a contribution made by language historian, Anne Curzan, dubbed, “20 Words That Once Meant Something Very Different”.  I’m sure you will find this information, very different from what you learned in your English class at school.

The cherry on the pie about this matter, is a TED presentation made by Anne Curzan which I’m sure will raise a few eyebrows.  The title of her oral presentation is “What Makes a Word ‘Real’ ? “.   Here we go.


6 thoughts on “The Oddities of the English Language”

  1. Did you happen to catch the discussion between Susan and me in my comments section about Chase Jarvis’s use of the word “amateur”? She was arguing for the older, original meaning — someone who does something purely for the love of “whatever.” Today, it also can mean someone who isn’t yet accomplished, as in the phrase, “her amateurish efforts.”

    Living language is so interesting. It also makes it doubly important that we consider the context when we decide how to use a word!

  2. I don’t recall having seen it. I think I missed that comment. But your point is well taken. Words mean different things in different time frames.

    It is my understanding that “amateur” is somebody that is not an expert in a specific field. For example, I’m an amateur photographer.

    Living language is fun to study, albeit it can sometimes be very painful and disturbing. For example, I’m still reading the novel “Moby Dick” by Herman Melville which is a roller coaster experience. Some times it’s the best of books, but the next day could be a total disappointment.



  3. TED Talks are wonderful. Not having a television I watch things like these all the time. Actually it’s much better than watching the evil, electronic, cyclops.

  4. I’m familiar with TED Talks through my Internet Netflix subscription. All its speakers are wonderful and their topics are from different areas of knowledge. Yep, a good source of information for a thirsty mind.

    What do you mean by “the evil, electronic, cyclops”? You lost me there.



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