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Home >> Across Cultures  >> Fascinating English words: Then and now

Fascinating English words: Then and now

English is a strange language. Some words are spelt the same, but pronounced differently (The wind made my hair wind around my face). Some words are spelt differently, but pronounced just the same (The deer soon became his dear friend). What really brings about this odd inconsistency, we may never know for sure. But linguists trace it back to how the language developed–as a mish-mash of West Germanic and Celtic tongues in an Anglo-Saxon England and the regions surrounding it.

Before Modern English became the language we recognise today, it was once Old English, later Middle English, then Early Modern English. From Geoffrey Chaucer to William Shakespeare to Jane Austen to J K Rowling, English has had major makeovers with time. Words took on different meanings, depending how they were used over the centuries. According to Holt English, Language and Writing by Irmscher, Holt, Rinehart, and Winston: “The meanings of words already in the lexicon can change through the processes of broadening, narrowing, amelioration, and pejoration.”

Now, let’s attempt to understand these big words, shall we? Lexicon is simply the vocabulary of a language. Broadening is the generalisation or expansion of the meaning of a word. For instance, ‘dog’ once referred to a specific breed of dogs, but today it could mean just about any dog. Narrowing is what happens to the meaning of a word, when it becomes less general and more specific. For example, ‘deer’ once used to mean just about any animal; today, it refers to deers only. Amelioration is a positive change in the meaning of a word, a kind of upgrade. For instance, ‘terribly’ once referred to the pathetic state of affairs; now, it’s equivalent to ‘very’. Pejoration is downgrading of the meaning of a word. For example, ‘silly’ once meant blessed; today, it is synonymous with foolish!

We don’t have to know these technical details to notice how words change in meaning–not only across centuries, but also within decades. Take for instance the word ‘guy’. Up until the 90s, it was largely used only to refer to young men. But since then, ‘guy’ has been used, colloquially and informally, to refer to both men and women, irrespective of their ages–a common usage in American English. Could this gender neutral usage of ‘guy’ have something to do with the internet age bringing American sitcoms to screens around the world? Perhaps. Dr Sweta Mukherjee, Assistant Professor of Linguistics at Christ University, observes, “The more dominant group, usually the young and educated kind, in any given society dictates how a language is spoken. A language only exists in usage. Words do not inherently carry meaning. It’s the associations we make with these words that gives them meaning.”

If someone called you ‘naughty’ today, you’d probably smirk. You’d assume they’re teasing you for being mischievous. But until the 14th century, naughty meant you’re poor, that you have naught (nothing)!

Dr Mukherjee’s explanation tells us one thing: Any language only derives meaning when there’s a context. And there’s a context only where there’s a dialogue. There’s dialogue only when there are two or more people. It’s not the words that make English such a fascinating language; it’s us. This English Language Day, let’s explore a few words we’ve added colour to.


If you were a gentleman or a lady in the 16th century, and somebody told you you’re awful, you wouldn’t be offended. In fact, you’d probably puff up your chest with pride! Until the 17th century, ‘awful’ was associated with a kind of reverence and fear at the same time, rather like the emotion a devotee would have for God. Today, of course, an ‘awful’ remark would have us feeling terrible about ourselves.


If someone called you ‘naughty’ today, you’d probably smirk. You’d assume they’re teasing you for being mischievous. But until the 14th century, naughty meant you’re poor, that you have naught (nothing)! Apparently, over the years, having nothing slowly turned into having loose morals.


‘Being nice’, is, well, a nice thing these days. It means you’re polite and pleasant. But between the 14th and 17th century, ‘nice’ meant silly or foolish. How nice went from foolish to pleasant, we may never understand. 


Up until the 17th century, ‘silly’ meant lucky, far from the idea of ‘foolish’ that it represents today. So, back then, “You’re so silly!” meant you’re blessed.


Today, if you’re a ‘bachelor’, then you’re an unmarried man. But before Chaucer’s time, if you were a bachelor, you’d be a young knight!


Have you experienced heartburn? No, not acidity. Heartburn, as in a burning desire of the heart. Yes, that’s what ‘heartburn’ meant a few centuries ago. It had nothing to do with gastrointestinal reflux.


If you came last in a race today, you’d probably lose. But if you were ‘last’ a few centuries ago, you’d actually be on top, because the word meant ‘highest’ or ‘utmost’ back then.


A few centuries ago, ‘pretty’ wasn’t exactly easy on the eyes. It meant ‘sly’ or ‘cunning’. It couldn’t have been much of a compliment back then.


Today, you’d be a villain if you’re wicked or cruel. Originally, ‘villain’ was simply another word for ‘farmer’!


We all like to think we have our own guardian angels. A few centuries ago, that would’ve made no sense, because ‘angel’ simply meant a messenger. 


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