10 Surprising Words That Drastically Changed Their Meanings Over Time

Words that used to mean something very different

We’ll own up right at the start: the ten words below were suggested to us by the latest book we’ve been reading, Paul Anthony Jones’s The Accidental Dictionary: The Remarkable Twists and Turns of English Words. Jones’s previous books – one of which we included in our pick of the best and most interesting books about the English language – have taken a look at the curious and often surprising histories of English words, and his new book is no different. We were fortunate enough to be the recipients of an advance review copy of the book; it’s out in the UK next week. Below are ten surprising words which quite drastically altered their meanings at some point in the past, and now mean something very different from their original definitions.

AMBIDEXTROUS. This word, Jones reveals in his book, originally meant ‘duplicitous’ or ‘deceitful’, when it first appeared in the English language in the sixteenth century. An ‘ambidexter’, meanwhile, was a dishonest lawyer. Why? Because he would accept a payment from both sides of a legal dispute.

Of course, these days the word ‘ambidextrous’ simply denotes proficiency with both hands – meaning you can play tennis, for instance, equally well with your left or your right hand – but this more recent sense only emerged later in the sixteenth century. ‘Ambidextrous’ literally means ‘right-handed on both sides’. (‘Ambilaevous’, meaning ‘left-handed on both sides’, denotes the opposite – i.e. being useless with both hands.)

CLOUD. The word ‘cloud’ is from the Old English clúd – meaning ‘rock’ or ‘mass of stone’. So a cloud was originally something altogether more solid and tangible (that Old English clúd also gave us the words ‘clod’ and, rather nicely, ‘clot’). Jones tells us that Old English speakers probably began to use the rocky word to describe the rainclouds as a sort of metaphor (since the grey clouds could poetically be said to resemble large grey rocks in the sky).

accidental-dictionary-paul-anthony-jonesCLUMSY. Since we included ‘ambidextrous’ above, we thought we’d best redress the balance by featuring this word. Well, that’s not the only reason. It also had a curious original meaning: ‘clumsy’ first meant ‘numb with cold’.

DRENCH. Now more familiar as a word denoting being soaked to the skin with water, ‘drench’ originally meant ‘to ply someone with drink’. The word ‘drench’ stems from the Old English drencan, which is also the root of ‘drink’.

EXPLODE. The word ‘explode’ has its rather curious and surprising origins in the theatre: it meant ‘to jeer a performer off a stage’. This seems odd until we realise the derivation of the word: from the Latin ex- and plaudere, ‘clap’. So to ‘explode’ an actor off the stage was to clap them off (slow handclaps, we presume).

FLIRT. When it first turned up in the language – possibly as an onomatopoeic attempt to capture the flickering or fluttering movement involved – the word ‘flirt’ meant a scornful, derisive jeer, usually a sudden twitch or jerking movement. It took on its more romantic meaning in around the early eighteenth century, but for several centuries before this it had referred to a mocking or derisive gesture.

JARGON. Although it’s more familiar to us as a term for complicated-sounding technical or specialist language, the word ‘jargon’ initially denoted birdsong, when it arrived in the English language from the French, in the early fourteenth century. Like ‘flirt’, its origins may have been onomatopoeic.

meerkat-standing-on-hind-legsMEERKAT. This word is thought to come from the Sanskrit markata which means ‘ape’. Dutch sailors took up the word, and it morphed into ‘meerkat’, which literally means ‘sea-cat’. For several centuries, writers and explorers used the word to refer to a number of species of monkey. It was only at the end of the eighteenth century that the word was attached to the mongooses in Africa.

PINK. The word ‘pink’ started out denoting a very different colour from the pale reddish hue it’s now indelibly associated with, for it originally referred to a dark yellow. In the mid-fifteenth century, ‘pink’ referred to ‘a yellowish or greenish-yellow lake pigment made by combining a vegetable colouring matter with a white base’ (OED). What’s particularly surprising about the shift in the meaning of this word is that these two meanings of ‘pink’, as Jones reveals in his book, are etymologically unrelated. They just happened to end up being spelt the same way. Who’d have guessed?

TIDDLYWINK. In Victorian Britain, a ‘tiddlywink’ was an unlicensed pub. Nobody’s sure where this slang term came from, but one possible theory mentioned by Jones is that the word originated as slang for ‘a small tipple’ or ‘a wee dram’ (‘tiddly’ meaning small, of course, and ‘wink’ implying a short amount of time, suggesting that one was just nipping into a downmarket tavern for a quick drink). From the name for a bar to the name of a bar game, ‘tiddlywink’ became the game ‘tiddlywinks’, though the game it originally referred to was a variation on dominoes rather than the game with coloured counters which we know today.

Paul Anthony Jones’s The Accidental Dictionary: The Remarkable Twists and Turns of English Words is a fun and informative book that contains many, many more interesting stories about words which have drastically altered their meanings over time – many of which are just as surprising or unexpected as the ten we’ve picked out above. This is what we love about language: it’s always surprising us with its curious histories and forgotten etymologies.

Image (bottom): Meerkat at Cotswold Wildlife Park (picture credit: John5199, 2012), via Wikimedia Commons.

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