Words aren’t set in stone (well, except for the ten commandments, BOOM BOOM). Their meanings change over time, depending on how people use them. And there’s nothing wrong with that. So here are five everyday words which started out meaning one thing, but have now morphed into something completely different.
Silly used to mean ‘pious’. It comes from an old English word, seely (which makes you sound like you’re saying ‘silly’ in a comedy/slightly offensive Italian accent if you say it out loud) which meant happy. Here’s how it evolved over time:
Innocent (we’re up to around the year 1200 now)
Pitiable (we’re at the end of the 1300s at this point)
Foolish (around the 1570s).
This final use was cemented by Sir Billy of Shakespeare. In A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Hippolyta says: ‘This is the silliest stuff that ever I heard.’
I had a teacher at primary school who used to say ‘nice is not a nice word’. I think she probably didn’t like it because we tend to overuse it. But turns out it literally wasn’t a nice word – it comes from the Latin word nescius, which means ignorant, and was previously used to describe stupid people.
‘Nice’ has actually had loads of different meaning over the years. From about 1300 to the end of the 1600s it mainly meant silly or foolish. But it was also used to describe someone who was ‘very particular’ or ‘finickety’, as well as people who were flash dressers. At some point in the 16th century it took on a more positive meaning, and was used to describe things that were considered ‘refined’.
My primary school teacher was in good company when it came to thinking that ‘nice’ was used too much – Jane Austen evidently thought the same, as shown in this exchange from Northanger Abbey when Henry Tilney says:
‘…and this is a very nice day, and we are taking a very nice walk, and you are two very nice young ladies. Oh, it is a very nice word, indeed! It does for everything.’
Back in the 14th century, ‘naughty’ meant ‘having nothing’. As in I have naught so I’m naughty. Because adding a ‘y’ to a word generally changes the meaning to ‘characterised by’ – think ‘juicy’, which means that something ‘has juice’ (that sounds a bit gross, sorry). And if you have naught, then you might have to do questionable things, like stealing or prostituting, to try not to have naught anymore. And that, it seems, is how ‘naughty’ took on the meaning it has today.
Nowadays ‘pretty’ as an adjective means ‘attractive’ and is usually only applied to us ladies. And, as is so often the way (damn you patriarchy!) if it is used for a man it’s often derogatory, as in ‘pretty boy’. ‘Pretty’ first appeared around a millennium ago as ‘praettig’, which means ‘crafty’ (as in foxes, not sewing or origami) or ‘cunning’. This came from the word ‘praett’, which means ‘trick’. Because being crafty or cunning isn’t always bad, it began to take on more positive connotations of skilful or clever, until we get where we are today. The skilful bit is also where we get the adverb from i.e. ‘pretty cool’ or ‘pretty rubbish’. (In case you fell asleep in English class the day they covered adverbs, they’re words that describe or give more information about verbs, adjectives or other adverbs. Even I nearly fell asleep then.)
Bully = bad, right? Well, yes, it does now. But back in the 1530s it meant ‘sweetheart’. It was used for both boys and girls, and is thought to originate from a Dutch word ‘boel’, which means ‘lover’ (and also ‘brother’ which I’m going to gloss over, because ew). During the 17th century the meaning morphed into ‘fine fellow’. Still nice. But at some point people decided that a ‘fine fellow’ could also be a bit of a dick, which then developed into the idea of a bully (the fact that it has ‘bull’ in it might also have had something to do with this). The old meaning is still just about hanging around in the phrase ‘bully for you’ when someone does something good (although I’ve only ever used that sarcastically).
PS Don’t do bullying kids!
(See also word of the week ‘egregious’ which used to mean really good.)