Quirky Changes in the Meaning of Words

DSC01615Words have always fascinated me. Just why do they mean what they do? Is there a better word to express my meaning or what I’m feeling?

Even more intriguing is how the meaning of words has changed over time. We say something is awful, meaning terrible. But when we pick the word apart into its root and suffix, we get awe-full, full of awe. Which is what it meant in the first place.

Another word that has evolved is nice. Back in the Middle Ages, to call someone nice was hardly a compliment. Rather, you were saying they were ignorant, silly or foolish. Then during the time of Queen Elizabeth, nice took on a completely different meaning. Describing someone as nice meant they were meticulous or precise. Fast-forward another 300 or so years, and nice has a new meaning again. It traded its more specific meaning for the bland and vague sense it has now, that of something pleasant or agreeable. I liked the older meaning better.

So which really is a better expression of our thought, to describe a sunset as nice or awful?

And then there’s the word doom. Today hearing it conjures up a sense of foreboding, impending disaster or death. It used to mean a decree, law or judgment. It makes sense that if people had a more pessimistic view of the outcome of legal cases, doom would begin to mean something had rather than good.

Other changes aren’t so easy to comprehend. How did egregious switch from something that is especially good to something that is remarkable bad? Or how was the word evil able to progress from meaning uppity to immoral or malevolent? And to garble used to mean to sort out. Certainly different from its current meaning of “to distort.”

Some changes to the language strike me as a little funny. Imagine calling someone “sophisticated.” They think they’ve been complimented. Meanwhile, you have in mind the former meaning of the word “unnatural or contaminated.”

You could get yourself in trouble using the word “stupid.” Far from implying someone lacks brains, all you mean is they are amazed. The same would be if you called someone a villain, when all you mean is that they are a farm laborer.

Then you could cause all kinds of misunderstandings, telling people you feel sad. They’ll be ready to offer sympathy and support, when what you are really saying is that you are satisfied and content.

The possibilities are endless. Maybe I could come up with an amusing short story out of all this. Or a board game. Who knows where my love of words and imagination will take me?

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