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 ‘playful’
Remarkably, people have been playing ludo – or at least, versions of ludo – since the sixth century AD. The game first emerged in India, when it was known by the Hindi name pachisi (meaning ‘twenty-five’).
The English name ludo literally means ‘I play’ in Latin, and is a derivative of the verb ludere, meaning ‘to play’, ‘to jest’ or ‘to sport’.
When it first appeared in the early 17th century, the adjective ludicrous described anything that was sportive or recreational, or else jocular or intended as a joke. Samuel Johnson defined the word ludicrously as ‘in a manner that may excite laughter’ in his dictionary in 1755.
By the end of the 18th century this meaning had broadened so that ludicrous was being used to describe anything frivolous or trifling.
Throughout it all, however, the word had largely positive associations – even describing a person as ludicrous originally implied that they were quick-witted or could tell a good joke.
But all that changed over the next 2 centuries as the association with jokes, trivialities and flippancies, led to ludicrous beginning to be used to mean ‘absurd’, ‘laughable’, ‘ridiculous’.
Consequently by the mid 19th century, all other uses of the word had fallen away, and ludicrous was now only being used in a somewhat negative sense to describe anything or anyone deserving of laughter or derision, and it’s this fairly laughable meaning that has remained in place ever since.
Originally meant ‘having nothing’
The Old English word, still in use today, nought is very old indeed over 100 years old to be precise. It comes from a combination of ne, a negative-marking adverb, and aught – literally meaning ‘not anything’.
When naughty first appeared in the language in the early 15th century, it meant ‘having nothing’. So if you had nothing then you were literally naughty.
The word could be applied both to tangible possessions as well as intangible ones so as well as being used to mean ‘destitute’ or ‘needy’, naughty was also used to describe people with no morals, no empathy, or no sense of decency.
Consequently, by the mid 1400s naughty was being used in a much stronger sense than it is today to mean ‘wicked’, ‘depraved’ or, in relation to animals, ‘vicious’ or ‘untamed’.
This sense of immorality or savagery continued to strengthen throughout the Middle Ages, so that by the 16th century naughty was being used to mean ‘licentious’ or ‘sexually provocative.
Having reached peak naughtiness in the 16th century, however, the word has since weakened and today is seldom used except to mean ‘misbehaved’ or ‘mischievous’.
Originally meant ‘exposing to harm’
Ob began life as a Latin word, one of the many meanings of which was some sense of moving or acting against something, or of concealing or blocking it.
At the root of obnoxious (as well as noxious, nuisance and innocuous) is the Latin word nocere, meaning ‘to harm’ or ‘to injure’.
Hence when Obnoxious first appeared in the English language in the mid 1500s it had a sense of ‘exposure to harm’.
Other meanings were quick to emerge however, so that by the end of the 16th century obnoxious was also being used to mean ‘answerable’ or ‘subject to another’s power or authority’, in the sense of someone being liable for the damage or injury caused to someone else.
By the 17th century this meaning had broadened again, so that obnoxious was now being used to mean ‘punishable’, or essentially ‘deserving of harm or injury’, and ultimately ‘potentially hurtful’ or ‘potentially injurious’. And from there, it was merely a short sidestep to the more familiar modern meaning of ‘unpleasant’, or ‘disagreeable’, which first emerged in the mid 1600s.
Originally meant ‘deceitful’
Prestige and prestigious derive ultimately from a Latin word, praestigia, which was used to mean both ‘conjuror’s tricks’ or ‘magic tricks’, and ‘trickery’, ‘deceit’ or ‘illusion’.
When the word prestige first appeared in English in the mid 17th century, it originally referred to an illusion or a magic trick. Likewise the adjective prestigious, which made its debut a century earlier, originally described someone especially skilled in magic or sleight of hand. With deception at play it’s not surprising that neither prestige nor prestigious originally had entirely decent or positive connotations in English.
So how did we get from magic tricks and deception to esteem, respect and celebrity?
By the early 19th century, prestigious was beginning to be used to mean ‘having an overawing or dazzling influence’, while prestige now described influence or admiration that relied on past glories.
By the end of the 19th Century and at the turn of the century prestige was merely ‘high regard’ or ‘respect’. Describing something or someone as prestigious, meanwhile, implied nothing more than that they were well respected or admired, and it is these meanings that have remained in use ever since.
Originally meant ‘wife’
Emperors have empresses. Dukes have duchesses. Counts have countesses and even mayors have mayoresses. So why is the wife of a king a queen and not a kingess?
Part of the reason for these terms are so clearly derived from their male counterparts stems from the fact that, historically, gaining and maintaining ruling power and influence was an all but consistently male affair. The wives of emperors, dukes and counts had lessor or no power so the need for a separate title for these female consorts simply never came about. So that explains why we don’t have the word kingess because a Queen (on her own) has very real power. However it doesn’t explain why Queen originally meant ‘wife’.
Queen is actually one of the oldest recorded words we know of; instances of the Old English equivalent of ‘queen’, cwen, have been unearthed in documents dating as far back as the late 9th century. At that time, as well as meaning ‘the wife of a king’, cwen was also used to mean simply ‘wife’, and it’s likely that this vague sense was the word’s original meaning.
At the same time the Old English word wif simply meant ‘woman’ and Old English wifman, meant ‘woman-man’.
Together, over time, wifman took the place of wif, and in turn wif took the place of cwen, which left cwen to become more specialised as a word for the wife of a nobleman or any equally high-ranking individual, and eventually the wife of a king.