Fun with Definitions
The English language is nothing if not strange. Its homonyms and homophones can confuse anyone. Add synonyms to the mix and that’s a lot to learn. Here’s another twist you can add to the complexity of our language: the redefining of words throughout the ages. When I was a kid, sick meant you were ill, not feeling well as in “I’m too sick to go to school.” In the eighties, the word came to mean awful, terrible as in “She’s so sick. I hate her.” Today when the kids call something “sick” they’re not referring to germs, they’re making the word a compliment: “That concert was sick!”
As writers, we should consider the changing guard of words as a challenge and use them to add flavor to our books. This can be especially interesting if you want to put your out-of-time characters into a pickle when they try to communicate with characters from earlier historical eras.
Read these sentences I created using words that have changed over the years and see if you can figure out the real meanings.
- The naughty hussy is egregious at her job and has borne many wenches.
- In her faith, the spinster is awful before her God, never nice, and surely most silly.
- Her negligee was sad, an unlikely choice for someone usually so smug.
If you were a modern man or woman trying to decipher these sentences you might think the historical character said:
- The wicked, disreputable woman is conspicuously bad at her job and has borne many wanton women.
- In her faith, the old maid is terrible before her God, never agreeable, and surely most inane.
- Her sexy nightgown was unhappy, an unlikely choice for someone usually so self- righteous.
When in reality, the character said:
- The housewife, who has nothing, is distinguished in her job and has borne many female children.
- In her faith, the woman who spins for a living is worthy of awe before her God, never foolish, and sure most blessed.
- Her dress, which opened in the front to show the handsomely decorated petticoat beneath, was a muted color, an unlikely choice for someone usually so well-dressed.
As you can see, many of the words we use today didn’t originally mean what we think they do. The English language is alive and constantly in flux. Here’s a few more redefined words I found. Why not challenge yourself and see what interesting and silly (that’s inane, not blessed) reinterpretations you can create?
- Fizzle: The verb fizzle once referred to the act of producing quiet flatulence. American college slang flipped the word’s meaning to refer to failing at things.
- Fathom: Fathom once meant “to encircle with one’s arms.” Today it means “to understand after much thought.”
- Clue: Centuries ago, a clue (or clew) was a ball of yarn. Today a clue is a hint or a sign that helps unravel a mystery.
- Myriad: A myriad of things, 600 years ago, meant you had 10,000 of them—not just a lot.
- Eerie: Before the word eerie described things that inspire fear, it was used to describe people feeling fear. A frightened woman might say she was faint and eerie.
- Bachelor: A bachelor was a young knight. Later the word came to refer to someone who had achieved the lowest rank at a university—think Bachelor of Fine Arts. The word has been used for unmarried men since Chaucer’s day.
- Flirt: Flirting used to involve flicking something away, flicking open a fan, or otherwise making a brisk or jerky motion. Now it involves trifling or playing with someone’s emotions.
- Quell: If you quelled someone or something years ago, you killed it. Today you would merely subdue it.
- Divest: In the past, divesting could involve undressing as well as depriving others of their rights or possessions. It has only recently come to refer to selling off investments.
- Senile: Senile used to refer to anything related to old age. Now it refers specifically to those suffering from senile dementia.
- Meat: When we talk about meat today, we are referring to the flesh of an animal. The term once meant food in general. Think meat and drink, a terminology prevalent in Medieval times.
- Cheater: A cheater was originally an officer appointed to look after the king’s escheats—the land lapsing to the Crown on the death of the owner intestate without heirs. Mistrust of the king’s cheaters, who weren’t above using forged seals to claim lands, led the word into its current sense: a dishonest gamester or a swindler.
- Girl: Girl once meant a child or young person of either sex.
- Pretty: In Old English, “pretty” meant crafty and cunning. Later, it took on a more positive connotation: clever, skillful, or able. It could also describe something cleverly or elegantly made. By the 1400s the meaning morphed to its present definition: good-looking, especially in a delicate or diminutive way.
- Terrible: Terrible once meant causing or fit to cause terror, inspiring great fear or dread. It also meant awe-inspiring or awesome. By the 1500s, terrible (like awful, dreadful, frightful, and horrible) came to mean very harsh, severe, formidable, and hence, excessive or extreme, and not in a good way.
- Sly: If you call someone sly now, you mean they’re sneaky and deceitful. In the 13th century, it had a positive meaning: skillful, clever, knowing, and wise.
I’d love to see what interesting sentences you can come up with using this list of words, or other words whose meanings have changed. Have some fun with it and get your characters in trouble.
Catherine Castle is the author of the two-time award-winning inspirational romantic suspense novel The Nun and the Narc.
You can find her on the web at http://catherinecastle1.wordpress.com
Amazon author page: http://www.amazon.com/author/catherinecastle
Twitter: https://twitter.com/AuthorCCastle @AuthorCCastle