Once upon a time in the history of the English language, you could land on the “naughty” or “nice” list for very different reasons than you think. And that’s because the words “naughty” and “nice” belong on a long and fascinating list of words that have different meanings than they did originally.
Language evolves over time, and so do the meanings of words. Etymology can tell a compelling backstory about where a word came from, but it doesn’t cement its fate forever. “Literally” doesn’t even literally mean “literally” anymore, and that’s because enough people have come to understand it as an exaggeration used for dramatic emphasis.
Here are a few words that have different meanings than they once did. Their original definitions may surprise you!
Words That Have Different Meanings Than They Used To
Awful: Both “awesome” and “awful” once meant more or less the same thing — something that inspires awe, but on a “fear of God” kind of level. What’s implied here is that there’s a combination of “stunning, wow” and “crap, I’m terrified.” Over time, “awful” became associated with “crap,” and “awesome” became associated with “stunning.”
Bully: For a word with such abusive connotations, “bully” actually used to mean the exact opposite. It originally meant “sweetheart,” perhaps owing to the Dutch boel, which meant “lover.” It’s unclear how it flipped, but one theory is that it became associated with “ruffian” because a bully may have been a “protector of a prostitute.”
Cute: When used sarcastically, the modern meaning of the word “cute” is actually not far off from its origins. Back in the day, cute just meant you were sharp or clever — perhaps too much so for your own good.
Dapper: Though we generally think of snappy menswear when we hear this word, “dapper” used to mean “brave.”
Fizzle: Once upon a time, “to fizzle” was to “fart quietly,” which perhaps explains why there’s something kind of stale and weak about something that fizzles out.
Flirt: This word once was somewhat synonymous with “flick” — a sudden, sharp movement, like one you’d make when dramatically opening a letter.
Girl: Once upon a time, “girl” was just a gender-neutral term for a child. So next time someone says your nephew “throws like a girl,” tell them Chaucer would agree.
Guy: This word actually comes from “Guy Fawkes” (you know, the mask and all that), a historical figure made famous for his role in a bombing attempt of the British Parliament. Before “guy” just meant “guy,” it referred to a grotesque or scary person.
Hussy: Here’s a word that originally came from “housewife” — meant to refer to the mistress of the household — and eventually lost its social rank. And unsurprisingly, the reasons for this are sexist. Over time, a “hussy” became an unmarried woman who lived on her own, which was basically the same thing as being a harlot or a tramp in society’s mind. (A lot of old woman-related words that have different meanings today started out neutral and became more insulting over time.)
Matrix: Before Keanu Reeves was bending spoons, the word “matrix” referred to a female animal or plant kept for breeding or reproduction. The matrix spawns everything, man.
Meat: In Old English, “meat” was a more general term for “solid food.” Was this because our English-speaking ancestors had a chronic case of gout? That may have also been true.
Naughty: The original “naughty” had nothing to do with calorie-rich desserts or sexual innuendo — it had to do with being poor. The word “naughty” comes from “naught,” which means “nothing.” This word didn’t originally have a strictly pejorative connotation, but over time, it became associated with “nothing in the way of morals,” as opposed to “nothing in the way of riches.”
Nice: You know how it’s not always a compliment to call someone “nice,” especially if that’s the only good thing you can say about them? That may actually be by design. “Nice” originally meant “stupid” or “ignorant,” coming from the Latin nescius.
Villain: The Latin word villanus basically just meant “villager,” but fast-forward to medieval society and you had to kind of think about who had the money and wealth to live in those grand villas (hint: the aristocracy). Thus, “villain” came to mean “scoundrel.”