Awful or full of awe? When words change meaning

Language is never static. The words we use haven’t always meant what they do now.

As a translator, I’m naturally interested in words: how they fit together, how they’re used, and how they change – within a language as well as between languages. And sometimes it seems like language is changing faster than ever. Not only is emoji taking over as a form of language in itself, the internet also provides an entirely new space for people to develop their own grammar and syntax. But though it may be more obvious now, language has always changed (and people have always complained about it: Ranulph Higden was a monk who bemoaned how Viking and Norman invaders were ruining the English language in the 14th century).


This apparently inoffensive word has its roots in the Latin word nescius, meaning ignorant. Back in the 14th century, ‘nice’ meant silly, foolish or simple. It went through a good number of negative meanings, from wantonness to sloth, before it acquired the more neutral qualities of shyness and reserve in the Middle Ages. It was only in the 18th century, when society started to admire these qualities, that ‘nice’ finally started to mean something positive – at first it was associated with respectability and virtue, before finally coming round to today’s meaning of ‘pleasant’.


A ‘clue’ was originally a ball or yarn of thread. When you know that Theseus was given a clue of thread to find his way out of the labyrinth, the modern meaning (evidence we use to solve things) starts to make a bit more sense.


The current meaning of ‘myriad’ has been around for a long time, but it also used to be more specific – having a myriad meant having exactly 10,000 of something. The same thing happened to decimate, which was originally based on the Roman practice of punishing large groups of soldiers guilty of mutiny or desertion: one in ten were chosen by lot and executed. Slightly different to the current meaning of extreme devastation.


In the 15th century, ‘silly’ meant worthy or pious. There also used to be an equivalent adjective, ‘seely’, which makes the link a little clearer – the German word for soul is Seele. Silly then went from holiness to vulnerability, coming to mean helpless and defenceless, before it finally arrived at ‘foolish’.

As with many things, Terry Pratchett provides the best take on words twisting their meanings (yes, I know it’s about elves):

‘Elves are wonderful. They provoke wonder.
Elves are marvellous. They cause marvels.
Elves are fantastic. They create fantasies.
Elves are glamorous. They project glamour.
Elves are enchanting. They weave enchantment.
Elves are terrific. They beget terror.

The thing about words is that meanings can twist just like a snake, and if you want to find snakes look for them behind words that have changed their meaning.
No one ever said elves are nice.’

Title image via Flickr: Golden ort loom – Nic McPhee (CC BY-SA 2.0)

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