20 Words That Once Meant Something Different

This is an pretty silly list. And by silly I of course mean worthy. Check it out the first five here from Anne Curzan.

  1. Nice: This word used to mean “silly, foolish, simple.” Far from the compliment it is today!

  2. Silly: Meanwhile, silly went in the opposite direction: in its earliest uses, it referred to things worthy or blessed; from there it came to refer to the weak and vulnerable, and more recently to those who are foolish.

  3. Awful: Awful things used to be “worthy of awe” for a variety of reasons, which is how we get expressions like “the awful majesty of God.”

  4. Fizzle: The verb fizzle once referred to the act of producing quiet flatulence (think “SBD”); American college slang flipped the word’s meaning to refer to failing at things.

  5. Wench: A shortened form of the Old English word wenchel (which referred to children of either sex), the word wench used to mean “female child” before it came to be used to refer to female servants — and more pejoratively to wanton women.

  6. Fathom: It can be hard to fathom how this verb moved from meaning “to encircle with one’s arms” to meaning “to understand after much thought.” Here’s the scoop: One’s outstretched arms can be used as a measurement (a fathom), and once you have fathoms, you can use a fathom line to measure the depth of water. Think metaphorically and fathoming becomes about getting to the bottom of things.

What are some words you know that have changed over the years? Let us know in the comments below.

Read the rest over at Ted.com.

Matt Edwards

Matt Edwards is a filmmaker in his native Los Angeles. He is an alumnus of the 2011 Taliesin Nexus Filmmakers Workshop, a 2014 Liberty Lab Fellow and the current editor of SCC. Matt is also host of the The Rear View film podcast. Follow @TRVpodcast and @mattchrised on Twitter.