Pam Webb

a writer's journey as a reader

Why We Say: Old Words, New Meaning


Immersed in the study of Hamlet, I currently have to pause in our scrutiny of the emo Dane to explain an old word that Shakespeare uses that now has new context. Elizabethan slang is a study in itself. “Get thee to a nunnery” and “You are a fishmonger” as well as “Are you honest?” have a subtext if their own.

Moving to the present–

There are some words that used to mean one thing, however, due to current usage have evolved differently in connotation and denotation. These are standouts from an article by the Mirror:

ADDICT

In Roman times addicts were broke folk given as slaves to the people they owed money to. 

It comes from the Latin addictus, which meant “a debtor awarded as a slave to his creditor”.

In the 1600s it was used in the sense of giving yourself to someone or some practice.

AWFUL

In the 1300s it originally meant “inspiring wonder” and was a short version of “full of awe”. But now the word has purely negative connotations.

BROADCAST

It may now be the way the BBC spreads the news, but in 1767 “broadcast” meant sowing seeds with a sweeping movement of the hand or a “broad cast”. Its media use began with radio in 1922.

CUTE

Cute was a shortened form of acute, meaning “keenly perceptive and shrewd” in the 1730s. 

But by the 1830s it was part of American student slang, meaning “pretty, charming and dainty”. 

And, bizarrely, the original sense of “dainty” was “worthy and substantial”.

FANTASTIC

If you’re thinking of telling your beloved how fantastic they look today, think again.

Unless, that is, they look like a Hobbit or an Avatar (whatever floats your boat).

The 14th century meaning is “existing only in imagination”, from the old French term “fantastique”.

It was not until 1938 that the word was first used to mean “wonderful or marvelous”.

MATRIX

You may be thinking of Keanu Reeves in his 1999 hit sci-fi movie. But in reality “matrix” comes from the 14th century French word meaning “pregnant animal”.

It went on to mean “womb or source”. Eventually in 1555 it was adapted to mean “a place where something is developed”.

NERVOUS

In the 1400s a nervous person was actually “sinewy and vigorous” – as the Latin word nervus applied to both sinews and nerves.

By 1665 nerves were better understood and by 1734 the term meant “suffering a disorder of the nervous system”.

By 1740 it meant “restless, agitated, lacking nerve” and it then became a widespread euphemism for mental illness – forcing the medical community to coin “neurological” to replace it in the older sense.

“Nervous wreck” was first used in 1899.

NICE

Derived from the Latin nescius meaning “ignorant”, the word began life in the 14th century as a term for “foolish” or “silly”.

It soon embraced bad qualities, such as wantonness, extravagance, cowardice and sloth.

In the Middle Ages it took on the more neutral attributes of shyness and reserve.

Society’s admiration of such qualities in the 18th century brought on the more positively charged meanings of “nice” we know today.

I won’t even address how “literally” is so wrongly used today. Some pet peeves are best kept quiet.

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7 thoughts on “Why We Say: Old Words, New Meaning

  1. I love this…literally ;).

  2. Interesting especially the words that now have negative connotations.

  3. What a fascinating post. Language never ceases to surprise, what a time we live in, when we can access, study, and share the whimsical ways words evolve.

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