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Flip It and Reverse It: Words With Altered Meanings

Over time, meanings mutate, and everyday English is full of words which started life with a very different sense indeed. We take a look at some words whose meanings have wandered a long way from where they originated.

Bully

Original meaning: Stemming from the Middle Dutch boele, for ‘lover’, to call someone a bully in the sixteenth century was effectively to say ‘good fellow’ or ‘darling’. It was a term of endearment applied to either sex, and later became a familiar form of address to a male friend.

Modern meaning: In the seventeenth century, the meaning of bully started to change, first to someone who showed off about his good deeds, and a century later to an intimidating individual who uses their strength or power to harm or coerce others.

Mugger

Original meaning: Back in the day, a mugger was, quite simply, someone who made stoneware. The word stems from 16th century Scotland and is likely of Scandinavian origin – Norwegains today still using mugge, and Swedes mugg, to describe ceramics.

Modern meaning: Unfortunately, a modern-day mugger is a rather more unsavoury character, and is understood as someone who attacks and robs another in a public place. The shortened form mug, as well as a drinking vessel, is also informally used to describe the face and likely came about because drinking mugs in the eighteenth century were often made to represent a grotesque human face.

Naughty

Original meaning: In the 1300s, naughty people had naught (nothing); they were poor or needy. By the next century, the meaning shifted from having nothing to being worth nothing – more specifically, to being evil or immoral.

Modern meaning: Today, the meaning of naughty has slightly softened so that it now refers to someone, typically a child, who is badly behaved and disobedient.

Nice

Original meaning: The word nice began life in the 14th century as an expression of foolishness or silliness. This is because it stems from the Latin nescuis, meaning ‘ignorant’. Over the years it was applied to many negative qualities, including wantonness, extravagance and ostentation, as well as cowardice and sloth.

Modern meaning: The tide started to turn in the Middle Ages when the term began to embrace more positive associations, including today’s values of virtue, kindness and satisfaction. This said, when used to describe something pleasant there is some debate as to how ‘nice’ the main meaning of nice really is, with some feeling its use carries a hint of damning praise (a hangover from its original overtones, perhaps).

Nervous

Original meaning: To be described as nervous in the mid-18th century was to be considered strong and vigorous, in the sense of containing nerves or sinews.

Modern meaning: Whilst the etymological root remains the same as the Late Middle English – stemming from the Latin nervosus – today we understand a nervous person to be anxious, agitated or apprehensive.

Pedant

Original meaning: Stemming from the French pedant and the Italian pedante, both of which derive from the first element of the Latin paedogogus, the term pedant was used in the sixteenth century to describe a schoolmaster.

Modern meaning: A pedant today is a person who is excessively concerned with minor details and rules, or who makes an over-the-top show of knowledge.

Punk

Original meaning: In the 17th century, a punk was a prostitute.

Modern meaning: Today’s punks are a little less promiscuous (a word which has also altered in meaning, in fact – once upon a time being the term for someone who was confused or undistinguished). Popularised in the 1970s, the term punk describes a form of loud, fast-moving, aggressive rock music and its followers. It is sometimes also used when referencing an inexperienced young person.

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