Some words slowly change meaning over time, like “literally”

This is the Grammar Guy column, a weekly article written by Curtis Honeycutt.

Now that my son is in elementary school, he comes home with a new slang vocabulary. I learned the “yeet”, which means to throw something very hard. Now I know that “oof” is a sound you hear in a video game when a character dies.

The days of “cool” and “rad” are over. Depending on the decade you became a teenager, your words might be “distant”, “marvy”, “tubular” or “dynamite”.

Today I would like to look at English words whose definitions have changed drastically over the years. Some have turned around.

Horrible: This word now means something like “terrible”, “bad” or “ugly”. Originally, the word had the same association with the word “great”, which meant deep reverence and respect for something or someone.

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Cloud: At the time, a cloud was falling, while it is now up. In the 1300s, a “clud” was a mass of rock or a hill – think of a “clod” of earth today. It was a mass of land. Today, a “cloud” is something in the sky that occasionally drops precipitation. Apparently this is also where all my passwords are stored. If anyone finds them, let me know.

Meat: In Old English, people distinguished solid foods (meat) from drinks (drink). Over time, “meat” has evolved to refer only to the flesh of animals that people eat. But, at the time, an apple would have fallen into the category of meat.

Literally: You will be saddened to learn that a second definition has been added to the word literally: figuratively. Am I happy about this? No I’m not. However, dictionaries report popular usage, so “literally” can mean “exactly” or “sort of/about/approximately/figuratively”. If you want to put a bee in my beanie, use “literally” to mean “figuratively”.

Nice: we get “nice” from the Latin word “nescious” (ignorant). Originally, “nice” meant “a stupid or ignorant person”. Over time, the word has come to mean either “someone who is shy” or “someone who has a keen sense of fashion”. Eventually, the word “nice” evolved to mean “nice” or “pleasant”.

Curtis Honeycutt

Fantastic: We now know that the word “fantastic” is synonymous with “awesome”. However, this has not always been the case. “Fantastic” originally meant something that was “imaginary” or “fabricated”. Dragons and unicorns were fantastical creatures. It comes from the same word as “fantasy”.

As you can see, our language comes and goes over time. Words change and evolve into different meanings as culture and mainstream thinking change. What’s an example of a word you use that once meant something completely different?

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