Read a piece of literature from a couple hundred years ago — or even just a few decades ago — and you might feel like you’re reading a different dialect of English. Languages evolve, usually becoming simpler over time. Acceptable grammar practices change, writing styles shift, and words and phrases take on meanings that may be a significant departure from their original definition.
One common example of a word with a new meaning is “gay.” You might often hear traditionalists point out that the word previously meant happy, and it had nothing to do with a person’s sexual orientation. Of course, that is one example among hundreds; here are a few more words that have different meanings today than they did in yesteryear.
“Awesome” and “awful” sound similar, but they have opposite meanings — today. However, if you take a trip in the way-back machine, you’ll find that “awful” really wasn’t so bad. In fact, it used to describe something that inspired awe, something jaw-dropping in a good way. Next time you want to give a creative compliment, use awful in its original sense. Just make sure you explain what you really mean.
Television and radio stations transmit their content to a wide audience, and this is how we most often define “broadcasting.” However, the word has its roots in agriculture. Instead of meticulously planting each seed, a worker would scatter seed by tossing it in handfuls on primed soil. Even today, there are broadcasting machines that distribute grass seed and fertilizer.
He can stretch for miles, and he leads a team of superheroes. He is Mr. Fantastic, and he lives up to his name in every sense of the word — according to both the archaic and modern meanings of it. Today, “fantastic” describes something that is outstandingly good, something above and beyond the everyday. However, it used to have a meaning more directly related to its root word, “fantasy.” Yep, fantastic once referred only to things that don’t exist.
Today, “backlog” refers to mountains of work that probably require an all-nighter or two to finish. Are you wondering about the word’s original meaning? In colonial times, a backlog was the biggest log in the fire. Go ahead, throw a backlog in the fireplace, grab some coffee, and get started on that backlog of paperwork.
If you like to write fiction, you probably pour hours into crafting the perfect villain. You come up with a potent back story, outstanding characteristics, and a sinister list of to-do’s. Well, if you lived in the 13th or 14th century, you wouldn’t put so much effort into the villains of your novel unless you were writing a gripping tale of life on a farm. That’s right; a villain was nothing more than a farmhand.
If you’re a passenger in a car or bus, you might look out the window and see pedestrians, but those folks on the sidewalk are passengers, too, according to the word’s old meaning. Passengers were originally people who traveled by foot.
Back in the 19th century, published works used this word about six times as frequently as they do today, and that isn’t the only way that “pedant” has changed over the years. It used to describe a knowledgeable person, a schoolmaster. Today it refers to someone who is a little too concerned about details.
Language, like culture, must adapt to new attitudes and new ways of thinking. That is why so many words do not mean what they used to. Can you think of any other interesting examples of words or phrases that have left behind their original meanings?