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Eight Words Which Have Completely Changed Their Meaning Over Time

Strangely, their original meaning was very different – or totally the opposite – of what it is now.

Artificial

This originally meant ‘full of artistic or technical skill’. Now its meaning has a very different slant.

Nice

This comes from the Latin ‘not to know’. Originally a ‘nice person’ was someone who was ignorant or unaware.

Awful

This meant ‘full of awe’ i.e. something wonderful, delightful, amazing. However, over time it has evolved to mean exactly the opposite.

Brave

This once was used to signify cowardice. Indeed, its old meaning lives on in the word ‘bravado’.

Manufacture

From the Latin meaning ‘to make by hand’ this originally signified things that were created by craftsmen. Now the opposite, made by machines, is its meaning.

Counterfeit

This once meant a perfect copy. Now it means anything but.

Prove

Originally this meant to test. The old meaning survives in the phrase ‘proving ground’.

Tell

Its original meaning was ‘to count’. Which is how we came by the term ‘bank teller’.

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32 Responses to “Eight Words Which Have Completely Changed Their Meaning Over Time”
  • nobert soloria bermosa
    October 4th, 2008 at 7:23 am

    educational piece,thanks

  • Memoryz
    October 4th, 2008 at 11:13 am

    Very nice! I never know Nice meant the total opposite!

    Check out my article too http://www.socyberty.com/History/Geography-Terms.283947

  • Denny Lyon
    October 4th, 2008 at 2:49 pm

    After the last article, had to go see what else you had up here – another little gem, thanks! ~ d

  • Nelson Doyle
    October 4th, 2008 at 6:53 pm

    This taught me something new today, thanks. The word “Gay” originally meant “Happy”, but today it means something entirely different.

    God Bless,

    Nelson Doyle

  • thestickman
    October 4th, 2008 at 11:02 pm

    Here’s an acronym your probably didn’t know about…

    “fornicate under command of the king”

    (Google it…) :-o

    -thestickman

  • Kevin R Carr
    October 5th, 2008 at 7:09 pm

    Interesting. Thanks for this.

  • Angela Igawe
    October 6th, 2008 at 9:38 am

    wow!amazing

  • Kim Buck
    October 6th, 2008 at 6:47 pm

    Interesting…thanks for sharing.

  • Liane Schmidt
    October 6th, 2008 at 10:01 pm

    What an interesting, unique article – great work!

    Blessings.

    Sincerely,

    -Liane Schmidt.

  • hevach
    October 11th, 2008 at 4:15 am

    Nelson Doyle: “Gay” is a pretty fun word. It hasn’t meant happy in living memory – prior to being established to mean homosexual, it meant simply promiscuous or sexually indiscreet, in the 20’s, flappers were called gay, and a number of womanizing or flirtatious characters in film and literature played on the meaning (Gay Falcon, Jane Gay). For most of the 17 and 1800’s it specifically referred to prostitutes, “the gay lifetstyle” referred to prostitutes and their customers. Before that, in the 1600’s, it meant immoral or hedonistic, which extended to all of its later meanings, but also included just about every sinful pleasure.

    Basically, anybody who pretends it used to mean “happy” is either being pedantic or is roughly 400 years old.

    thestickman: You should Google it – it’s not true.

  • wilcox
    October 14th, 2008 at 11:32 am

    In regards to “manufacture”, I think your definition is a little too narrow – I’ve never heard *anyone* claim that “manufacture” only allows for the manufactured item to have been made by machine. “Brave” never meant a coward; the ancient Latin pravus meant “depraved”, and from there it turned from “depraved” to “cutthroat” to “savage” to “bold” to “valiant”. What’s your source on “counterfeit” necessarily meaning a “perfect copy” – that doesn’t even follow the etymology.

    In fact, a lot of your definitions are skewed and slanted in ways that I can’t even begin to comprehend – your definition for “artificial” is practically bogus, and the “other slant” isn’t explained beyond a beginning wink. Furthermore, most of your bits about how these words have changed involve going back to the Ancient Latin roots – how disingenuous of you to talk about some word “changing” when your “original definition” is an entirely different word in a language that hasn’t been spoken in over a thousand years.

    I’d recommend that anyone who wants to learn about the history of words from an actual authority, not someone who fails to even give references for his claims, check out the Online Etymology Dictionary at http://www.etymonline.com.

    thestickman: You mean the completely false backronym for “the f-word”? No, no, really, you should have “Googled it” yourself.

  • Noodle 40
    October 22nd, 2008 at 2:56 am

    Hey, Wilcox.

    I think you need to go and do some research yourself. That etymonline website is full of errors too! Unlike you though, I’m not going to be a self-appointed lecturer. Also, the rather arrogant way in which you present your ‘corrections’ does you a great disservice – especially when you’re so wrong yourself! I’m sure the writer of this piece wasn’t planning to enter it as his final doctorate dissertation, so why have to include references? Anyone who wants serious discussion knows where to go. At best you come across as pompous. At worst, well…

  • fifi-summerbell
    October 26th, 2008 at 10:35 am

    Jeez wilcox! Issues or what???

    “I’ve already had to stop looking through writing blogs…”

    Please extend this courtesy to this site.

    Don’t bother writing me a long (yes, your are pompous) response.

    Fifi.

  • mervat
    March 31st, 2009 at 11:46 am

    thanks ..please i need to know more words … could you send me more words which their meanings are different in many cultures as well as from age to age..

  • Jeff
    December 14th, 2009 at 12:59 pm

    You miss the mark here on many of these.

    Artificial originally meant a skilled (art) face (ficial) meaning to appear to be something it was not.

    Nice does mean that in latin, however this english word nice takes its root from german “nett”. Not every word that looks the same is from that language, especially short words.

    Awful still means that. It fills you with awe that something can be so terrible. Or that’s awfully nice of you, which does not mean you’re not nice (nett)!

    Brave comes from latin bravo, which meant brave. Bravado means brave face.

    Manufacture still means to make. Made by man. Even if it is made by machine, the machine is directed and instructed or programmed by man. Machines did not exist when this word was conceived, however it does not now mean only by machine.

    Counterfeit still means a perfect copy, or near perfect copy. It’s not a good counterfeit if you can tell. That’s why they have those little markers at retailers for $50s and $100s, because counterfeits are nearly impossible to discern.

    Prove means to test. If someone says “prove it”, they are asking you to present a test in which you confirm the validity of your conjecture.

    Tell is an autonym, which has many separate meanings.

    Please learn your etymology!

  • Nino Baldino
    March 20th, 2010 at 7:32 am

    Lets look at “Square” which Teddy Roosevelt used to describe his administration..fair and honest.that was changed to mean..outdated and naive..by Fonzi and the establishment!.Gay used to mean a person who was happy and had a nice dispositon!.now it also has a different meaning!..Lincoln used this word in a famous speech and what does one do with a word that meant something entirely different!..A deadbeat used to be called just that..a bestnik..but during the nam war was changed to ‘hippy’ a new word for a person who was ‘cool’ against any anti-communist war but pro-drug use.Person used to mean any of us..as in the anti-slavery amendment,,changed so that abortion is allowed..sigh…cant happen here,go back to sleep……….Nino

  • Nino Baldino
    March 21st, 2010 at 8:24 am

    The word ‘gay’ used to mean..one with a pleasant and happy disposition..Lincoln used it in a famous speech concerning the recent lynching of Eliyah Lovejoy (a great name there)..I perfomed as Lincoln recently in a town function and debated if I should leave the word in …’the sad and the gay…’ or change it to ‘the sad and the happy’…..now I am working on how Tonto was changed since the 1980s to mean..’stupid’ which it never meant..as Orwell warned.’he who controls the present controls the past…2+2= 5 for today !..this was done to lampoon the great Lone Ranger series..tell me,why would the historical folks of Arizona then call physical landmarks..’Tonto basin..and the Tonto natural bridge….(the stupid bridge??) go figure

  • RyanKJohnson
    September 28th, 2010 at 11:48 pm

    I was going to suggest that you go some more research, but it looks like that subject has been tapped.
    I hope that this article motivated some people to do their own research on these and other words, and that in this sense it was helpful.

  • Mythili Kannan
    October 4th, 2010 at 4:10 am

    Your 50th like it from me. Nice one.

  • bobby
    March 14th, 2011 at 2:03 pm

    dont like words

  • ritika
    April 17th, 2011 at 11:47 am

    It is very very nice

  • Paul
    May 25th, 2011 at 5:28 pm

    Lies. A counterfeit bill is a copy of a bill that is so good that its hard to detect. Nice guys finish last because they are clueless. Some of these words’ meanings have changed somewhat, but to claim they mean the opposite is just wrong. Look them up for yourself.

  • Reneta
    August 10th, 2011 at 11:15 am

    This will really help prove to my teacher that words have evolved over the decades she has been alive.

  • Emma
    October 13th, 2011 at 6:27 am

    you need to check the oxford english dictionary (oed.com) for brave, manufacture and counterfeit. Your definitions are incorrect

  • Curly
    January 4th, 2012 at 6:12 pm

    Where are these eight words?

  • will
    February 21st, 2012 at 3:17 am

    What happen to real words that changed like gay and retarded. you say that to someone and they’re not thinking happy or mentally challenged.

  • abishek sharma
    February 28th, 2012 at 7:25 pm

    Only if we try to understand the history of the world in the history of words

  • Hillary
    March 1st, 2012 at 5:01 pm

    Wow aweful! ;)

  • deddxe
    March 7th, 2012 at 1:02 am

    lol

  • Gijo George
    August 2nd, 2012 at 8:01 pm

    Some words have been changed completely in its meaning and their usage. This is because of the usage context changes and cultural impact on the language.

  • lilly
    November 15th, 2012 at 8:06 am

    If you are interested in reasons and ways for language to change you should read: “A Mathematical Model of Historical Semantics and the Grouping of Word Meanings into Concepts” by Martin C. Cooper. It’s not as mathematical as it sounds and is easy to read. Specially the first parts.

  • barry
    November 19th, 2012 at 9:52 pm

    this is so bad gave me nothing poo

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