Listening to my kids talk to each other made me realise how rapidly the English language changes, even from one generation to the next. Awesome and epic both mean cool, of course, but to different degrees. Luckily cool still means cool, but if you say groovy then you clearly are not. Swag was once a bedroll, as in our Aussie bush ballad. Now, my kids assure me, it refers to someone who walks with their hats on sideways and their trousers hanging low. I’m not sure whether it’s meant to be a good thing or not!

Looks like the jolly swagman had swag …

But all this got me thinking. Like a true nerd, I started googling semantic change, as it’s known, and I thought you might be interested in my findings…

Old words for new things

Some words continue to mean what they used to mean. However, they also refer to new objects or concepts that simply didn’t exist not so long ago.

A mouse is still a little furry animal that squeaks and throws households into panic. It’s also the plastic thing you grip to navigate around your computer screen. They look somewhat like mice, I guess, but then you have mousepads, which don’t. A bookmark, once a staple of mothers’ day stalls, now fulfils a similar function on your Internet browser. Which leads us to the web and a notebook and a tablet and … you get the picture. Just don’t ask me how many pixels.

Narrowing of meaning

But let’s go back further, before living memory. Some words that used to have a broad or general meaning have become narrowed and specialised.

The word girl once described a young child of either gender. Now, of course, it only refers to females. I tried calling my son a girl today and he didn’t like it very much; I wouldn’t recommend it. Similarly, hound used to mean any type of dog, now it refers to a particular hunting breed. Meat used to mean any type of food (hence those confusing words like sweetmeat and nutmeat) but now of course means animal flesh.

Broadening of meaning

Other words have done the opposite. Rather than becoming more specialised, their meaning has broadened to a more general application.

A barn was once a place to store barley. Now it refers to any farm building used for storage or shelter. Salary, derived from the Latin for salt, referred to a soldier’s allotment of salt, then a soldier’s pay, and now wages in general. And thing used to mean an assembly or council and now it means – well, anything.

Total turn around

My favourites are the words that have changed their meaning to something so different, it’s hard to believe they were ever used in that way.

Awful once meant something that inspired awe, rather like awesome in the middle-aged person sense. Pretty meant cunning or sly, and nice meant stupid. Remember that next time someone refers to you as pretty nice. Silly meant happy and gay … actually gay needs no further explanation.

And for the future?

How are we going to keep up with all these changes, without making fools of ourselves? As a children’s/young adult’s author, I have to get it right. Booty used to mean pirate treasure, but I don’t think I should invite anyone to look at mine. Sick used to mean ill, now it also means cool. Except for when it means crazy. Don’t talk to me about crazy …

And what of all these acronyms that young people use for texting and social media? How can we keep up with those? A friend warned me to look out for my children typing ‘PIR’ as I approached – parent in room! Huh, we’re on to you, kids! This next bit makes me cringe, and I hope I never end up like this unfortunate woman. Apparently a lady of late middle age thought WTF meant ‘with the family’, and posted a happy snap on facebook titled ‘on holiday WTF’. Aargh!

I guess we need to keep up our eyes firmly on the hardcore hipsters with swag and big booties. In the meantime, thank god for the urban dictionary!

And you?

What examples of word changes have you come across? Let me know in the comments section. Go on – share the love! Not in the 1960’s hippy sense, that is …

Photo credits: State Records NSW / Celeste / / CC BY-NC  Vincent_AF / / CC BY-SA

2 thoughts on “Words that change their meaning

  1. msavins says:

    Love this! Many text/social media acronyms have their origins in the chat rooms and IRCs of the 90’s, like ICQ and Yahoo chat, so I plead guilty to the occasional use of acronyms that many of my generation don’t understand!
    Another language sub-culture I find entertaining is l33t speak – and I remember my daughter being surprised that not only did I know what it was, I cou1d wri73 i7 as w311 🙂

    1. Stella says:

      I didn’t know about 133t speak. There’s so much to keep up with! Thanks for your comment, it’s gr8!

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