The Thinking of Speaking
Issue #8 March / April 2014
Words Which Have Changed Their Meaning
by Elizabeth O'Neill
March / April 2014 | 

Editor's note: This article is a reprint from "Stories That Words Tell Us" By Elizabeth O'Neill. It was originally published in 1918.

We have seen in the chapter on "slang" how people are continually using old words in new ways, and how, through this, slang often becomes good English and good English becomes slang. The same thing has been going on all through the history of language. Other words besides those used as slang have been constantly getting new uses. Many English words to-day have quite different meanings from those which they had in the Middle Ages; some even have exactly opposite meanings to their original sense. Sometimes words keep both the old meaning and the new.

In this matter the English language is very different from the German. The English language has many words which the Germans have too, but their meanings are different. The Germans have kept the original meanings which these words had hundreds of years ago; but the thousands of words which have come down to us from the English language of a thousand years ago have nearly all changed their meanings.

We have two of these old words which have now each two exactly opposite meanings. The word fast means sometimes "immovable," and sometimes it means the exact opposite--"moving rapidly." We say a key is "fast" in a lock when we cannot get it out, and we say a person runs "fast" when we mean that he runs quickly. The first meaning of steadiness is the original meaning; then the word came to be used to mean "moving steadily." A person who ran on, keeping up a steady movement, was said to run fast, and then it was easy to use the word for rapidity as well as steadiness in motion or position. This is how the word fast came to have two opposite meanings.

Another word, fine, has the same sort of history. We speak of a "fine needle" when we mean that it is thin, and a "fine baby" when we mean that it is fat. The first meaning is nearer to the original, which was "well finished off." Often a thing which had a great deal of "fine" workmanship spent on it would be delicate and "fine" in the first sense, and so the word came to have this meaning. On the other hand, the thing finished off in this way would generally be beautiful. People came to think of "fine" things as things to be admired, and as they like their babies to be fat, a fat baby will generally be considered a fine baby. It was in this kind of way that "fine" came to have its second meaning of "large."

A reed house, where people live.

The common adjectives glad and sad had quite different meanings in Old English from those they have now. In Old English glad meant "shining," or "bright," but in a very short time it came to mean "cheerful." Now it means something rather different from this, for though we may speak of a "glad heart" or "glad spirit," such expressions are chiefly used in poetry. Generally in ordinary speech when we say that we are "glad" we mean that we are pleased about some special thing, as "glad that you have come."

Sad in Old English meant to have as much as one wanted of anything. Then it came to mean "calm" and "serious," perhaps from the idea that people who have all they want are in a mood to settle down and attend to things seriously. Already in Shakespeare's writings we find the word with its present meaning of "sorrowful." It has quite lost its earlier meaning, but has several special new meanings besides the general one of "sorrowful." A "sad tint," or colour, is one which is dull. "Sad bread" in the north of England is "heavy" bread which has not risen properly. Again, we describe as "sad" some people who are not at all sorrowful. We say a person is a "sad" liar when we mean that he is a hopeless liar.

The word tide, which we now apply to the regular rise and fall of the sea, used to mean in Old English "time;" and it still keeps this meaning in the words Christmastide, Whitsuntide, etc.

One common way in which words change is in going from a general to a more special meaning. Thus in Old English the word chest meant "box" in general, but has come now to be used as the name of a special kind of box only, and also as the name of a part of the body. The first person who used the word in this sense must have thought of the "chest" as a box containing the lungs and the heart.

A knave as represented on a Spanish deck of cards.

Glass is, of course, the name of the substance out of which we make our windows and some of our drinking vessels, etc., and this was at one time its only use; but we now use the name glass for several special articles--for example, a drinking-vessel, a telescope, a barometer, a mirror (or "looking-glass"), and so on. Copper is another word the meaning of which has become specialized in this way as time has gone on. From being merely the name of a metal it has come to be used for a copper coin and for a large cauldron especially used in laundry work. Another example of a rather different kind of this "specialization" which changes the meaning of words is the word congregation. Congregation used to mean "any gathering together of people in one place," and we still use the word congregate in this sense. Thus we might say "the people congregated in Trafalgar Square," but we should never think of speaking of a crowd listening to a lecturer there as a "congregation." The word has now come to mean an assembly for religious worship in a chapel or church.

Some words have changed their meaning in just the opposite way. From having one special meaning they have come by degrees to have a much more general sense. The word bureau, which came into English from the French, meant at first merely a "desk" in both languages. It still has this meaning in both languages, but a wider meaning as well. It can now be used to describe an office (a place associated with the idea of desks). Thus we have "employment bureau," and can get English money for foreign at a "bureau de change." From this use of the word we have the word bureaucracy, by which we describe a government which is carried on by a great number of officials.

A better example of how a word containing one special idea can extend its meaning is the word bend. This word originally meant to pull the string of a bow in order to let fly an arrow. The expression "bend a bow" was used, and as the result of pulling the string was to curve the wooden part of the arrow, people came in time to think that "bending the bow" was this making the wood to curve. From this came our general use of "bend" to mean forcing a thing which is straight into a curve or angle. We have, of course, also the metaphorical use of the word, as when we speak of bending our will to another's.

Another word which has had a similar history is carry. When this word was first borrowed from Old French it meant to move something from place to place in a cart or other wheeled vehicle. The general word for our modern carry was bear, which we still use, but chiefly in poetry. In time carry came to have its modern general sense of lifting a thing from one place and removing it to another. A well-known writer on the history of the English language has suggested that this came about first through people using the word in this sense half in fun, just as the word cart is now sometimes used. A person may say (a little vulgarly), "Do you expect me to cart all these things to another room?" instead of using the ordinary word carry. If history were to repeat itself in this case, cart might in time become the generally used word, and carry in its turn be relegated to the realm of poetry.

A small Chinese wooden stool.

Words often come to have several meanings through being used to describe things which are connected in some way with the things for which they were originally used. The word house originally had one meaning, which it still keeps, but to which several others have been added. It was a building merely, but came in time to be used to mean the building and the people living in it. Thus we say one person "disturbs the whole house." From this sense it got the meaning of a royal family, and we speak of the House of York, Lancaster, Tudor, or Stuart. We also use the word in a large sense when we speak of the "House of Lords" and the "House of Commons," by which we hardly ever mean the actual buildings known generally as the "Houses of Parliament," but the members of the two Houses. The word world has had almost the opposite history to the word house. World originally applied only to persons and not to any place. It meant a "generation of men," and then came to mean men and the earth they live on, and then the earth itself; until it has a quite general sense, as when we speak of "other worlds than ours."

Many words which are used at present to describe bad or disagreeable things were used quite differently originally. The word villain is, perhaps, the most expressive we can use to show our opinion of the depths of a person's wickedness. Yet in the Middle Ages a villain, or "villein," was merely a serf or labourer bound to work on the land of a particular lord. The word in Saxon times would have been churl. As time went on both these words became terms of contempt. The lords in the Middle Ages were certainly often more wicked than the serfs, as we see in the stories of the days of Robin Hood; but by degrees the people of the higher classes began to use the word villain more and more contemptuously. Many of them imagined that only people of their own class were capable of high thoughts and noble conduct. Gradually "villainy" came to mean all that was low and vulgar, and by degrees it came to have the meaning it has now of "sheer wickedness." At the end of the Middle Ages there were practically no longer any serfs in England; but the word villain has remained in this new sense, and gives us a complete story of the misunderstanding and dislike which must have existed between "noble" and "simple" to cause such a change in the meaning of the word.

The word churl has a somewhat similar history. We say now that a sulky, ungracious person is a "mere churl," or behaves in a "churlish" manner, never thinking of the original meaning of the word. Here, again, is a little story of injustice. The present use of the word comes from the supposition that only the mere labourer could behave in a sulky or bad-tempered way.

Knave is another of those words which originally described persons of poor condition and have now come to mean a wicked or deceitful person. A knave, as we now understand the word, means a person who cheats in a particularly mean way, but formerly the word meant merely "boy." It then came to mean "servant," just as the word garçon ("boy") is used for all waiters in French restaurants. Another word which now means, as a rule, some one unutterably wicked, is wretch, though it is also used rather contemptuously to describe some one who is not wicked but unutterably miserable. Yet in Old English this word merely meant an "exile." An exile was a person to be pitied, and also sometimes a person who had done something wrong, and we get both these ideas in the modern uses of the word. The word blackguard, which now means a "scoundrel," was also once a word for "scullion;" but it does not go back as far as "knave" and "villain," being found chiefly in writings of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.

Halloween ghost decoration.

Another word in which the "villeins" and "knaves" and "churls" seem to have their revenge on the "upper classes" is surly. This word used to be spelt sirly, and meant behaving as a "sire," or gentleman, behaves. Originally this meant "haughty" or "arrogant," but by degrees came to have the idea of sulkiness and ungraciousness, much like churlish.

Several adjectives which are now used as terms of blame were not only harmless descriptions originally, but were actually terms of praise. No one likes to be called "cunning," "sly," or "crafty" to-day; but these were all complimentary adjectives once. A cunning man was one who knew his work well, a sly person was wise and skilful, and a crafty person was one who could work well at his trade or "craft." Two words which we use to-day with a better sense than any of these, and yet which have a slightly uncomplimentary sense, are knowing and artful. It is surely good to "know" things, and to be full of art; but both words have already an idea of slyness, and may in time come to have quite as unpleasant a meaning as these three which have the same literal meaning.

Fellow, a word which has now nearly always a slightly contemptuous sense, had originally the quite good sense of partner. It came from an Old English word which meant the man who marked out his land next to yours. The word still has this good sense in fellowship, fellow-feeling, etc., and as used to describe a "fellow" of a college or society. But the more general use is as a less respectful word for man. One man may say of another that he is a "nice fellow" without any disrespect; but the word has no dignity, and people, even though they use it of an equal, would not think of using it to describe a superior, and the more general use is that of blame or contempt, as in the expressions, "a disagreeable fellow" or "a stupid fellow." The word bully was at one time a word which showed affection, and meant even "lover." In English now, of course, a bully is a person, especially a boy, who tyrannizes over people weaker than himself; but the Americans still use the word in a good sense when they say "bully for you," meaning "bravo."

We have seen many words whose meanings have become less dignified than their original meaning; but sometimes the opposite happens. Every one now speaks with respect of a "pioneer," whether we mean by that people who are the first to venture into strange lands, or, in a more figurative sense, people who make some new discovery in science or introduce some new way of thinking or acting. Yet "pioneers" were originally merely the soldiers who did the hard work of clearing the way for an advancing army. They were looked upon as belonging to a lower class than the ordinary soldiers. But this new and at first figurative use of the word, applied first to geographical and then to scientific and moral explorers, has given the word a new dignity.

Words often come to have several meanings through being used to describe things which are connected in some way with the things for which they were originally used.

A group of words which had originally very humble meanings, and have been elevated in an even more accidental way, are the names of the officials of royal courts. The word steward originally meant, as it still means, a person who manages property for some one else. The steward on a ship is a servant; but the steward of the king's household was no mean person, and was dignified with the title of the "Lord High Steward of England." The royal house of Stuart took its name from the fact that the heads of the family were in earlier times hereditary stewards of the Scottish kings. So marshal, the name of another high official at court, means "horse boy;" seneschal, "old servant;" constable, "an attendant to horses' stalls," and so on. Some of these words have kept both a dignified and a commoner meaning. Constable, besides being the name of a court official, is also another term for "policeman."

The word silly meant in Old English "blessed" or "happy," but of course has wandered far from this meaning. On the other hand, several words which once meant "foolish" have now quite different meanings. Giddy and dizzy both had this sense in Old English, and so had the word nice. But later the French word fol, from which we get foolish, was introduced into English, and these words soon ceased to be used in this sense. Before this the two words dizzy and giddy had occasionally been used in the sense in which they are used now, to describe the condition of a person whose head "swims;" this now became their general meaning, though giddy has gone back again to something of its old meaning in its later use to describe a person's conduct. A giddy person is another description for one of frivolous character.

12All pages
Revisited - Words Which Have Changed Their Meaning
Writer: Elizabeth O'Neill
jppi: Dictionary (title)
Seemann: Reed house
GDuwen: Knave of bastos of the Spanish Deck
quil: Small stool
missmeganbunny: Ghost decoration
jdurham: Hawk quills
Muzzlesf: Man with handkerchiefs
Ji-Elle: Treacle (Sri Lanka)
mensatic: Clerk at desk
• "Words Which Have Changed Their Meaning" Stories That Words Tell Us Elizabeth O'Neill, M.A. London: T. C. & E. C. Jack, Ltd. 35 Paternoster Row, E.C. And Edinburgh 1918

All images are Copyright - CC BY-SA (Creative Commons Share Alike) by their respective owners, except for Petey, which is Public Domain (PD) or unless otherwise noted.


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