Eight Words that have Changed Meaning over Time

Because human language is constantly in flux, evolving and reshaping with the times, many words and phrases change meaning over time. The field of linguistics was born of a need to keep track of, categorize, and catalog all of these changing nuances of language. Many terms currently used in daily conversation actually have archaic definitions which either no longer apply, or have been replaced by more accurate and descriptive terms. Some have changed only slightly and others have suffered major alterations. Others evolved naturally from their original meaning to their most commonly used associations. The following is a brief list of some examples:

  1. Apology – Nowadays, when we use the word apology, we are most likely referring to a situation where we ask another person for forgiveness for a misdeed of some sort. Originally, though, an apology was a simple explanation of one’s position or beliefs. The Catholic Church and students of philosophy are the only ones who keep the archaic meaning of this term alive. Books and classes on the study of apologetics can still be found in specialty book stores and libraries which focus on the logical defense of one’s chosen belief structure, religion, etc.
  2. Gay – Most people know that the word gay also means happy. In contemporary times, we use the word gay almost exclusively to identify someone as a homosexual. However, gaiety once referred to being in a state of carefree joyousness. Today, as a rule, you will only hear the original meaning in songs written four or five decades ago. A well-known example of this is from the theme song to The Flintstones, in which we hear the line, “We’ll have a gay old time!”
  3. Clue – A long time ago, a clue (or to use the British equivalent, clew) referred to a single ball of yarn. When labyrinths were still fairly common in the back yards of the wealthy, a person would use yarn in order to find their way back through the maze when they wanted to leave. This was also done in cave systems, meandering paths through the woods, etc. Detectives began using the term clue in an effort to illustrate the practice of finding their way through a mystery by following facts.
  4. Man – Although it’s hard to believe that there was a time when the word man meant anything other than a male human being, Olde English used man or mann in a very different context. The term “man” originally meant “mankind” or “humanity”, comprised of both males and females. In those days, if one wanted to refer to a male of our species they would use “vir” or “wer” (from which we derived the word virile to describe youth and masculinity). Interestingly, at those times the word “wif” was used in lieu of woman, from which we get the word wife. The word man has also become a bit of a hot-button political issue of late. Some feminists have argued that we should use humankind in lieu of mankind. We even see this in the TV series Star Trek, which changed its popular “where no man has gone before” to “where no one has gone before.” The argument suggests that this type of terminology favors men over women. However, an adequate understanding of the word’s etymology quickly negates this argument.
  5. Awesome/Awful – Only modern-day scholars will ever be caught using the terms “awesome” and “awful” in their original context. Slang and colloquial usage have shanghaied the term “awesome” to refer to anything which is seen as great or amazing. In the days of yore, however, the word awesome was used in a slightly different way. Something was awesome if it was inconceivably large or far-reaching. The term “awful” could once be used to describe a sweeping vista at sunset, for example, not exclusively something that is horrifically bad. An emperor could be said to wield an awesome power, for example. Still, we occasionally say that something is awe-inspiring, which hearkens back to this original meaning.
  6. Terrible – The word terrible, in its current usage, only denotes things that are bad or undesirable. Not too long ago, though, something terrible was simply overwhelming and enormous in scale. The word itself comes from the Latin word “terrere”, which meant to fill with fear. But, the word fear itself didn’t always carry only a negative connotation. We see this in theology, where one speaks of the fear of God as a reasonable, healthy thing… not something necessarily designed to inspire terror or panic.
  7. Ejaculate – It’s impossible to use this word in our modern world without everyone assuming that you are talking about semen. However, back in the old days to ejaculate simply meant to exclaim something loudly or with passionate exuberance. Again, the Catholic Church is one of the only remaining communities to still occasionally use the word in its original meaning. An ejaculation in Catholicism is a short, one-sentence prayer such as, “Holy Mary, pray for us!” (It should be added that one of the primary reasons why the Catholic Church continues to use the archaic, original meanings is because of its adherence to the dead language, Latin, for all of its official affairs and proceedings.)
  8. Doom – Outside of its use in the title of a video game, “doom” typically refers to an unavoidable, evil fate. To say “We’re doomed!” in the modern era is the equivalent of saying, “We’re all going to die!” In its infancy, “doom” was used simply to signify a judgment, official decree, or some sort of final state. As judgments and final states are more often than not negative in nature (death, imprisonment, the Apocalypse, etc.), doom naturally evolved over time to refer only to negative dooms.

Not listed individually on this list are all of those terms which have changed meaning due to their association with computer programs, mobile phones, Internet sites, and the proliferation of social networks. These include but are not limited to the following: tweet, ping, viral, root, text, tag, meme, profile, processor, monitor, etc. Computers and the Internet are changing our language so fast we are nearly to the point that words and phrases used in these industries could almost constitute an entirely new dialect of the English language.

Leave a Reply