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Changes in Meaning

The English language has evolved over more than a thousand years and words have come and gone with many changing their meanings, sometimes opposite to what they originally meant. Some words become more acceptable while others decline. Some become more specific, while others more general. Some words change because of sloppy misuse, while others change due to changing circumstances.  Sometimes changes in technology occur, but words retain their original reference.  

It is through written documents, including literature from Beowolf, Chaucer and Shakespeare, we can trace changes.  

“For last year’s words belong to last year’s language

And next year’s words await another voice”    T.S Eliot, Four Quartets 

Words strain

Crack and sometimes break, under the burden

Under the tension, slip, slide, perish,

Decay with imprecision, will not stay in place,

Will not stay still…………..T.S. Eliot notes in “Burnt Norton”  - Four Quartets:

"When I use a word," Humpty Dumpty said in rather a scornful tone, "it means just what I choose it to mean -- neither more nor less."

"The question is," said Alice, "whether you can make words mean so many different things."

"The question is," said Humpty Dumpty, "which is to be master - - that's all."    (Through the Looking Glass, Chapter 6)


Commonly misused words.

Enormity doesn't mean vast size (that's enormousness) – it means a grave crime; monstrous wickedness.

Disinterested is about money before it's about boredom (having no financial interest in one particular outcome or another).

Nonplussed is the most interesting: it has come to mean two antithetical things. The original definition is that you're so surprised you're unsure how to react. More recently, it has started to be used for feeling unperturbed – the exact opposite of shocked. The author notes that "both meanings are fighting it out" and recommends avoiding it altogether until this semantic battle is won.

Fulsome means insincere flattery, empty platitudes. Fulsome is a word that is constantly misused. It does not mean full or complete. The dictionary definition of fulsome is “unpleasantly and excessively suave or ingratiating in manner or speech”. Other synonyms are cloying and insincere.  If you mean praiseworthy, it’s not “fulsome praise”; it’s full of praise.

Blandishments – flatteries, cajoleries, praises, fulsome, effusive, insincere platitudes, rhetoric, oratory, banality, prosaicism, clichéd, bromides, cant, hollowed language,  husk, shell,

“Base words are uttered only by the base
And can for such at once be understood;
But noble platitudes — ah, there's a case
Where the most careful scrutiny is needed
To tell a voice that's genuinely good
From one that's base but merely has succeeded.” 
 W.H. Auden, Collected Poems

How words Change in Meaning

Upon completion of St Paul’s Cathedral, King George I, told the architect, Sir Christopher Wren “your work is amusing, awful and artificial.   Sir Christopher was delighted with this royal compliment.  Why?

Amusing – amazing,  awful – awesome,  artificial – artistic.

  1. Widening in meaning

    Sky              – used to be just a cloud, now the whole upper firmament. 
    Place           – used to be an open square in a town.
    Guy             -  first name of an individual; Guy Fawkes
    Bonfire     – a bone fire – burning at the stake.
    Holiday        -  a holy day – St. Crispin’s day 
    Deer            - any animal 
    Kind             - kinsman, kindred,  relative
    Unkind         - unkindred, treatment not suitable for relatives 
    Generous     - nobly born
    Friend           - relative 
    Journey        - Journeyman – distance a man could travel in a day.
  2. Narrowing of meaning

    Affection     - any emotion or disposition
    Wife            -  any woman
    Corn           -  any and all cereal crops – The Corn Laws
    Meat            -  any and all food -  “meat and drink”
    Deer           -  any animal in the forest
    Wench        -  any young girl.
    Girl             - any young person
    Humour      - fluids, temperament, disposition
    Parson        - any person
  3. Elevation of meaning – Amelioration

    Sophisticated has a fascinating etymology. About 800 years ago it had  pejorative nuances; today it has elevated connotations.   It likely came from the Greek word “sophistry” – specious or false arguments. It was associated with adulterate, perversion, falsify and debase.  By 1400 it suggested a mixture of foreign or inferior substances – unrefined. By Shakespeare’s time it had risen to not pure, simple or natural – affected, even deceitful.   By the eighteenth century it had been reformed and today is associated with experienced, worldly wise, subtle, discriminating, exalted, complex, refined – almost inverted.
    Fond           -  foolish
    Luxury        -  wanton,  lustful
    Nice            -  ignorant, foolish
    Virtue          - manliness, fortitude
    4. Lowering of meaning-  Deterioration or debasing language The word Propaganda itself used to be a respectable term, originally meaning the spreading of good news; started with the Catholic Church when in 1622 Gregory XV set up a Commission of Cardinals, which became a sacred congregation de propaganda fide  When Goebbels, Hitler and other Fascists began to use the word to describe their promotional activities, propaganda started its slide into disrepute. Today propaganda is associated with the insidious and subversive means of moving a person to predetermined ends.

Awful          - awe inspiring
Silly            -
happy, blessed, holy
Lust            - pleasure, joyful, energetic
Vulgar         - ordinary or common
Hussy         - any housewife
              - skilful
Lewd           - ignorant
Pagan         -  a rustic peasant or civilian
Stink/Stench -
 any odour or smell – “You stink well today!”
Crafty         - strong skilful
Specious     -  beautiful
         - unhealthy
Gay             - happy
Cunning      - learned, wise…
Asylum       - place of refuge – church where you were safe.

5. Acquisition of new multiple meanings 

Head           - up to 20+ meanings 
Up               - up to 90+ meanings 
Run             - changes due to context 6.

6.  Specialisation 

Dilapidated  -   “lapis”   stone – now any building 
Extravagant -    not part of a Papal decree 
Batchelor     -   aspiring to a full Knighthood 
Spinster       -   someone who spins cloth 
Doctor          - highly learned teacher

  1. 7.  Figurative extension
    Air              -  impression of importance
    Chagrin       - rough skin,  ill humour
    Candidate   - candidur – white
    Influence     -  power from heaven – Influenza - disobeying authority
    Naughty      -  good for naught (nothing)  

  2. Starve         - to die
    Zest             - lemon peel  - gives up energy
    Prone          - lying face down
    Alibi            - elsewhere
    Butcher       ­- “bouc”  French for Goat
    Curious       - careful
    Urchin         - Hedgehog, porcupine,  bristly marine life

    9.  Change of function
  3. Picture        - portrait painting
    Worm          - creeping dragon

     10.  Technological changes 

Manuscript   -
  no longer has to be written by hand
Paper             -   no longer made from papyrus
Lead Pencil  
 contains no lead – but graphite
Drinking Straw -  may consist of plastic or paper.
Atom               -  is now divisible

chuffed \chuhft\, adjective:

1. annoyed; displeased; disgruntled.
2. delighted; pleased; satisfied.

He was really chuffed about the fire as well, because Mrs Pearson from up the stairs had her washing ruined by the smoke.
-- Irvine Welsh, Marabou Stork Nightmares, 1997

Well, we can discuss that when we get there. Declan will be chuffed when I tell him, the family never usually goes to these things.
-- Cecelia Ahern, P.S. I Love You, 2007

This British term comes from the obsolete chuff meaning "chubby," used in the seventieth to nineteenth centuries. In the 1800s, chuff took on the sense of "pleased." Since the mid-1900s, chuffed has been used to mean both "pleased" or "displeased," depending upon the context.


I thought the PM's Public Schedule would be a list of things she was intending to do. As in this definition -- "lists of intended events and times" (emphasis added)

But it's not so in the modern world of Julia Gillard. The schedule on her website is a listing of past events and times not current or future ones. Always has been and apparently always will be. John McTernan the prime ministerial communications boss told me so in an email referring to yesterday's snippet about the website telling us where the PM was in this week last year, instead of this year:

So now we all know. With this Labor government don't make the mistake of taking a word at its normal meaning.


To be “teen-aged” is a concept that has been lingering around since 1818 ... although the phrase didn’t become popularized until post-War America. With an economy flowing with more disposable income, it gave rise to the teenager, the Billys and Susies that could enjoy an extended childhood without the hardships of war or labor before reaching adulthood. 

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