Column: Definitions of change


Commentary by Curtis Honeycutt

Now that my son is in elementary school, he’s coming home with a new vocabulary of slang. I’ve learned about “yeet,” which means to throw something really hard. Now I know that to “oof” is a sound you hear in a video game when a character dies. They “oof.”

Gone are the days of “cool” and “rad.” Depending on the decade you came into early adolescent prominence, your words could be “far out,” “marvy,” “tubular” or “dynamite.”

Today, I’d like to look at English words whose definitions have changed drastically over the years. Some have taken a complete about-face.

Awful: This word now means something like “terrible, bad, horrible, or lousy.” Originally, the word had the same association with the word “awesome,” which meant deep reverence and respect fo something or someone.

Cloud: Back in the day, a cloud was down, while now it is up. In the 1300s, a “clud” was a mass of rock or a hill — think of a “clod” of dirt today. This was a mass of earth. Today, a “cloud” is something in the sky that sometimes drops precipitation. Apparently, it’s also where all my passwords are stored. If anyone finds them, let me know.

Meat: In Old English, people distinguished solid food (meat) from drink (drink). Over time, “meat” evolved to mean only the flesh of animals that people eat. But back in the day, an apple would have fallen into the meat category.

Literally: You’ll be saddened to learn that a second definition has been added to the word literally: figuratively. Am I happy about this? No, I am not. However, dictionaries report popular usage, so “literally” can mean “exactly” or “kind of/about/approximately/figuratively.” If you want to put a bee in my bonnet, use “literally” to mean “figuratively.”

Nice: We get “nice” from the Latin word “nescious” (ignorant). Originally, “nice” meant “a stupid or ignorant person.” Over time, the word came to mean either “someone who is shy” or “someone who has a keen sense for fashion.” Eventually, the word “nice” morphed into meaning “kind” or “agreeable.”

Fantastic: We now know the word “fantastic” to be synonymous with “great.” However, this wasn’t always the case. “Fantastic” originally meant something that was “imaginary” or “made-up.” Dragons and unicorns were fantastic creatures. This is from the same word as “fantasy.”

As you can tell, our language ebbs and flows over time. Words change and evolve into different meanings as culture and prevailing thought shift. What is an example of a word you use that formerly meant something completely different?