English Words that Used To Have Vastly Different Meanings To What We Understand Today
How would you rate your vocabulary ? Average; Better than Average ; Exceptional ?
It may not matter how good you think your command of English is because in this article we reveal some surprising revelations about some of the words, you may have thought you had a thorough understanding of, had, in point of fact, some VERY different meanings in the past.
It’s not just modern “youf speak” that is changing words meanings. As you will see any word might be knocked and buffeted and subjected to many twists and turns over the centuries they have been in use.
Here’s 5 of them …
Originally meant ‘housewife’
When they first appeared back in the early Old English period, the words husband and wife were not the matching pair they are today. Wife simply meant ‘woman’ (in fact, woman itself comes from Old English wifman, literally ‘woman-man’) while the word husband applied merely to the male head of a household, not necessarily a male spouse. Husband itself literally means ‘house-dweller’.
The word housewife, began to emerge for the female head of a household in the early 13th century.
Despite its derogatory connotations, the word hussy is a contraction of housewife. When it first appeared in the early 1500s, it referred to the female head of a household, and at one time enjoyed connotations of thriftiness and skill with money. A hussy, in other words, was a sort of domestic goddess.
All that began to change in the mid 1600s. Around that time hussy began to be used more typically of strong, characterful, rustic countrywomen, and eventually – though somewhat unfairly – with women of lower social standings. Once there, it began to shed all its positive connotations, so that by the late 18th century a hussy was no longer a well-organised housewife, but a disreputable, dissolute young woman. The transformation was complete, and the word has remained unchanged in English ever since.
Originally meant ‘bruised’
When livid first appeared in English in the early 17th century it was used to describe anything that was bluish or leaden in colour. The word livid itself was borrowed into English from French, but has its origins in the Latin word lividus, meaning ‘bluish’.
The association between lividity and anger is actually a relatively recent development, and did not begin to appear until the early 20th century when this sense of the word – which is said to refer to someone being so angry or affronted that all of the colour drains from their face so that they look bluish or ashen – quickly caught on, and has since all but replaced the original use of livid completely.
One last stronghold for the original meaning is in medicine where livid is still used today to mean ‘blue-coloured’. Medical documents and diagnoses often refer to bruised, haemorrhaged, or otherwise discoloured skin as livid.
Originally meant ‘dirty’
The word nasty is at least 7 centuries old and first emerged in the English in the late 1300s, when it originally meant ‘dirty’, ‘filthy’ or ‘befouled’.
A century later, the later 15th century, nasty seems to have left its’ Middle Ages associations with dirtiness and foulness and was being used to describe offensive or contemptible people. By the 17th century it had gained connotations of lewdness or immorality. From there on its meaning softened and it became more generally associated with vaguely unpleasant or disagreeable things, and in particular anything found offensive to the senses, the meaning by which it is still used today.
Interestingly, in the early 1800s – as we have seen today with teen slang using ‘wicked’ and more recently sick to mean something great – nasty enjoyed something of a reversal in meaning – at least for a brief time.
Nasty began to be used with positive connotations, as a term of approval essentially meaning ‘terrific’ or ‘superb’. As an 1834 edition of
New York’s Knickerbocker magazine explained:
‘Sling a nasty foot’, means to dance exceedingly well. ‘She is a nasty looking gal’, implies she is a splendid woman. I know not by what singular change this meaning has been given the word nasty, but certain it is, that expressed above, it is considered among the class to which it has reference, as highly complimentary.
– ‘Buck Horn Tavern, a Scene in the West’, Knickerbocker, January 1834
Originally meant 3pm
The back story behind why “Noon originally meant 3pm” is a little lengthy – so bear with us.
Today new day begins at midnight. But to the Romans, forced to confine their working day to the hours of daylight, the day began at sunrise. The Roman day was nevertheless still divided into twenty-four hours, and it’s from the nona hora or ‘ninth hour’ of the Roman day that we have ended up with the word noon.
So far so good – however because the Roman day began at sunrise, its timing was seasonal, so your working day would begin at a different time in, say, March, than it would in August Not only that, but they insisted that both day and night should always taken as comprising 12 hours each, and so, due to the fluctuating start of the day, an hour in summer was roughly 75 minutes long while an hour in the winter was closer to 45 minutes.
In response to this inconsistency a standardised method of timekeeping eventually emerged, based on the equal length of day and night at the equinox. So, by the medieval period, the day was taken to start at a time roughly corresponding to what we would now call 6 o’clock in the morning – which ultimately made the ninth hour of the day three o’clock in the afternoon. Phew we got there … so that’s why “Noon originally meant 3pm”
What all this means is that when the word noon first emerged in the English language in the early Old English period, it wasn’t another name for midday but 3pm.
So why do WE use noon to mean midday – Well no one is quite sure why but what we can say is that the meaning began to change sometime around the turn of the 13th century, when noon began to be used as another name for midday.
Originally meant ‘prostitute’
There’s a line in Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure in which Mariana, the lonely and jilted ex-fiancée of Angelo, the deputy of Vienna, is called ‘a punk’. In All’s Well that Ends Well, the Countess of Rossillon is contemptuously called a ‘taffety punk’. Shakespeare here is using the original 16th century meaning of the word punk – Mariana is being labelled a prostitute.
Frustratingly though, no one is entirely sure where the word punk comes from. What is known, however, is that from its association with whores and strumpets in 16th century English, the word punk embarked on quite a journey to reach its contemporary associations with punk rock in the late 20th century. So how did we get from there to here?
By the 17th century the meaning of the word had broadened to include men as well as women who were involved in prostitution, and eventually, in the late 1600s, to young men in particular who maintained sexual relationships with older men for monetary or personal gain.
Punk remained in use in these contexts right through to the late nineteenth century, when it finally began to be used much more generally of any disreputable or contemptible person – petty thieves, pickpockets, thugs and hooligans.
By the 1930s a punk could be anything from a naive, inexperienced new recruit to a coward or a weakling, and even a young animal born into the circus. But it was the word’s seedy association with crime and disreputableness that survived the longest, so that by the 1960s punk was essentially a vaguely derogative term for someone up to no good.
It was in this sense that punk finally became attached to the rock-fuelled subculture of the early 1970s, to form terms like punk rock.