Tuesday, 5 October 2021

That was not what I meant. (H)

Another look at the sometimes ludicrous change in meanings. We tend to blame the dictionary, or more likely the government for any change we have no control over, but when it comes to language it is purely the populous who have full control. Use it in the wrong or a different sense often enough, it becomes part of the language.

Haggard, 'drawn, tired' tired, but in the sixteenth century was used to refer to an untamed hawk in adult plumage, especially a female hawk.

Handsome's original meaning can still be seen if split into its two composite words. Here 'hand some', at least from the fifteenth century, referred to something 'easy to handle'.

Happy is the state of being pleased or contented, and surely couldn't have meant anything else. But in the fourteenth century it was the state of enjoying 'hap', a word meaning 'good fortune'.

Harlot is a derogatory term which is exclusively femail in the modern era. Back in the thirteenth century when the term first appeared, it referred to a 'low fellow'.

Harvest today is the act of gathering in the crops. As this is generally at the end of the growing season in autumn, it is easy to see why 'harvest' was originally a synonym for 'autumn'.


Hazard is a danger, perhaps an obstacle, today but back in the thirteenth century was a dice game - indeed it is mentioned as such in Shakespeare's Henry V.

Headland may be a topographical feature today, a bluff or higher ground, but it began simply as the end of the ploughed strip in a field.

Hearse is today a vehicle used to transport a coffin, but when it first came to England in the fourteenth century from the French herse it described a framework resembling a harrow, but designed to carry candles over a coffin.


Heckle, the harrassment of a speaker, started life meaning the long feathers around the nexks of some birds.

Henchmen today are criminals, albeit not a term used frequently in conversation, but in the fourteenth century it referred to a squire or one who attended horses.

Hike refers to a long, chiefly rural, walk. From the eighteenth century it was used to mean 'jerk, pull'.

History can only be history, a tale or record of events in times past. But no, in the fifteenth century it meant the same as 'story', and appears in the original translation of AEsop's Fables.

Hobby today is a pastime, or perhaps a small hawk, but in the fourteenth century it was a small horse or pony.

Honest may mean 'trustworthy, fair' today, but its early use in the thirteenth century was used to mean 'comely, of pleasant appearance'.

Hoodwink or 'deceive' today, but a more literal sense in the thirteenth century as 'blindfold'.

Horrid is unpleasant today, but when it first came to English from the Latin horridus it had the same meaning as 'shaggy, bristling'.

Hospice/hospital share an origin with 'hospitality' and referred to a place where people could get their head down and most often this was a religious establishment.


Host, at least from the thirteenth century, would not offer a warm welcome as it was used as a synonym for 'army'.

Humour may be laughed at today, but in the fourteenth century was used in the sense of 'sense-changer'.

Hussy today is seen as a derogatory term, used to describe a woman or questionable morals, although I tend to hear it more often used in a jocular way. Historically there was no question of it being politically incorrect in the sixteenth century, for it simply meant 'housewife', and by the early eighteenth century was also used to refer to a woman who was known for her frugal lifestyle.

Hutch, a small pen and usually for a rabbit, began as a storage container in the fourteenth century and would have contained clothes or money.


Hypochondriacs worry about their health incessantly, see symptoms where none exist, but 'hypochondria' began as a general term for the upper abdomen.

Wednesday, 29 September 2021

That was not what I meant. (G)

Undoubtedly, the etymology and evolution of the word 'gasket' makes it one of my favourite English words.

Gale may be a strong wind today - or perhaps one of British soaps worst ever characters - but for reasons which have never been understood, during the eighteenth century it was used to mean 'a gentle breeze'.


Garbage can be used to mean 'rubbish', and other things deemed of poor quality, but for the majority of its life has referred to 'offal' and, for a short time, 'worthless writing'.

Gasket, that part which creates a seal between to castings, on a car engine for example. This began as a length of rope soaked in oil, those small lengths of rope were also used on sailing ships when the furls were tied up or furled. That length of rope was also used to tie the end of the plait of French ladies of the night many years earlier. The link is in the short length of rope, useless other than for the specific purpose.


Generous or 'giving' comes from the Latin generous meaning 'noble'.

Genial may mean 'good-natured' today, but the Latin original meant 'nuptial'.

Genius suggested great intelligence today, but came to English from Latin as a word meaning 'attendant spirit'.


Gestation today refers to the time spent in the womb, so it hasn't changed a great deal since it first came to English to mean 'carrying'.

Giddy is a somewhat dated synonym for 'dizzy'. The word 'giddy' began as Old English gydig meaning 'mad' as in 'possessed' and continued until the 14th century, resurfacing in the 17th century, when it meant 'mad with rage', around the time the modern usage is also first seen.

Gingerly or 'cautious' has nothing to do with ginger. Coming to English from the French gent or 'of good birth', it was originally used in the sense 'daintily' or even 'mincingly'.

Girl in the thirteenth century was also used for male children, albeit almost exclusively used in the plural to refer to 'children'. The Prologue to Chaucer's Canterbury Tales includes such a reference.

Glad has always meant 'happy, joyful', but in the earliest days it was also used to mean 'bright, shining', too.

Glamour began as an 18th century Scottish word meaning 'magic, enchantment' before coming to be used in its modern sense.

Glee may mean 'happiness' today, but historically meant 'play, sport, music'.

Glimmer is just a faint light today, but historically was used to mean 'shining brightly' until the fifteenth century.

Gloat in the sixteenth century was used in the sense of 'looking askance', a hundred years later was used to mean 'regard admiringly', another century on it was used in the sense of 'stare', not until the nineteenth century did it start to be used in the modern sense of 'enjoy the satisfaction of'.

Go-cart, more often go-kart today, began in the seventeenth century as that push-along which toddlers still use to assist them take their first steps.


Gore, the modern idea always being the spilling of blood, but until 1760 the original use would be describing 'filth' and often specifically 'dung'.


Gossip comes from the Old English godsibb, meaning 'godparent' and this was in use until at least the fourteenth century, thereafter evolving to mean 'well-known acquaintance'.

Grammar is the study of sounds and syntax, although originally it meant very specifically 'Latin'.

Grass widow is a term I have never come across, apparently it has the same general meaning as 'golf widow', in that a woman's husband. This is something rather tamer than the original use of the term which, from at least the sixteenth century, described a woman known or claiming to have had sexual intercourse with numerous married men.

Gravy is that brown savoury sauce made from the meat juices, but that isn't what it has always been. In the fourteenth century it described a white sauce, based on a mixture of broth, herbs and almonds blended with ale, which was used as a dressing for fish, poultry and vegetables.

Grin is today used mostly to refer to a toothy grin, although occasionally we use it in the sense of pain, as in 'grin and bear it'. But historically it referred to a display of anger, even dogs and wolves were said to 'grin' when baring their teeth in a snarl'.

Grizzle is a word which is becoming less popular with the passage of time. But when first seen in the eighteenth century, it wasn't used to mean 'cry bitterly' but 'to grin mockingly' or 'sneer'.


Grocer is today a retailer of vegetables or general comestibles. However originally it referred to one who bought in bulk - and the pronunciation still says 'dealer in gross'.

Groom has had three meanings and all have a basis in the thirteenth century synonym for 'boy'. It was then transferred to 'one who tends to horses' and 'the tending of horses'. Soon after it came to refer to 'man' rather than simply 'boy', and with the predictable result it came to refer to one who was going from boyhood to manhood at the altar.

Grub today can refer to 'food' or 'insect larvae'. Yet when first appearing in the fourteenth century, it described 'a man of short stature, stunted growth'.

Guess today means 'to estimate', but perhaps if we look at it in the sense of 'take a stab at', then the original idea of 'to aim' makes more sense.

Guilt or 'having committed a crime' began as a general term for the crimes themselves.

Gymkhana, a contest on horseback for children, is derived from the Hindi gend-khana, which translates as 'racket court'. Hence the definition was seen as 'a place of sport and play' in British-held India, where horseracing, polo, and other equestrian events were popular.

Sunday, 19 September 2021

That was not what I meant. (F)

I'm often asked why dictionaries change the meaning of words. Note, lexicographers never change the meaning of anything, dictionaries simply reflect current usage and therefore it is the people that change the meaning, not those producing the dictionary. Having reached the letter F, here are some more you've changed.

Fang is a long, often pointed, tooth. Yet it began in English meaning 'capture, catch', and is related to the German Gefangener 'prisoner'.


Farce or light comedy, those of a certain age will still associate this with Brian Rix, is derived from the Latin farsa meaning 'stuffed' or 'padded'. Isn't language fascinating?

Fare is, for once, a little easier to see, for while it means the cost of a journey today, it began as a reference to the journey itself.

Farm, something which can hardly of changed since we stopped being hunter gathers, surely? Wrong, while the farmers worked the land, they didn't work farms for 'farm' initially referred to the rent paid for the right to work the land, not that worked.

Fascinate began in the sixteenth century to mean 'bewitch, cast a spell upon', and only in the nineteenth century was it used to mean 'intrigue'.


Fast may mean 'speedy' today, but earlier, as in Chaucer, was used to mean 'firm'.

Fathom is used to mean either 'understand' or a measurement of depth of water equal to six feet. Yet when the word first came to English it was used to mean 'bosom, breast', but not in the modern sense but as in the area covered by the breastplate in a suit of armour - which is why men also had a breast and why everyone has a breastbone today. The change to the measurement is easy enough to explain, for that was said to be the measurement of an adult male from fingertip to fingertip with arms outstretched. Six feet might not be an exact measurement in reality, but it was a near enough approximation.

Fearful - if asked to define this word we would probably say something like 'worrisome, troubling', and yet statistically the send of 'dreadful' (as in 'what a fearful racket') is by far the more common use. I include this simply to wonder whether the original use will die out completely and, if so, how quickly?

Fellow is used to mean a 'colleague', a 'lecturer', or simply 'man'. Originally it was used to mean 'fee layer', that is someone who puts the money behind a joint venture.


Fiasco has changed less than many words, for while today it refers to any great failure, historically it referred solely to a disastrous performance in the theatre or musically.

Filter, that found on cigarettes or in coffee makers, is used to separate a finer particle from the coarser. It comes from the same source as 'felt', the material created by pressing small pieces of wool together. It can only refer to usage of felt as a filter, as indeed it was from the sixteenth century.

Fizzle, as in 'to fizzle out', a failure, is an American contribution to English, appearing in the nineteenth century. When it first came to English the word was used as a synonym for 'fart'.

Flagrant today means 'outrageous, deliberate', but historically was used to refer to 'flame, burning'.


Flaw today is only used in a negative sense, but historically was used to mean the same as 'flake' does today - as in snowflake, or flake of fire.

Flighty is first seen in the sixteenth century and used to mean 'swift, rapid' - rather different from the modern 'skittish'.

Flippant has meant 'glib, inappropriately lighthearted' for most of its existence. However, when it first came to English in the seventeenth century it was also used to mean 'nimble'.

Flirt, like the previous word, has had a long term meaning and a historical one. It has always had the modern meaning of 'amorous tease' but in the sixteenth century was also used in the sense of 'smart stroke, quick jerk'.


Fond of or have a liking for, meant 'foolish, silly' in the fourteenth century.

Forfeit, a minor punishment or penalty today, came to English from Old French and shared the meaning of 'to commit a crime'.

Founder used in the sense of 'to go lame, to sink', first came to English in the thirteenth century when it was used in the sense of 'to smash in'.

Franchise is a business term today, but came to English from French originally and meant 'freedom'.

Fray to become tatty, as in material, is first recorded in the sixteenth century to mean 'rub'.

Freak might be something rather unusual today, but if you were around in the sixteenth century you would have used it in the sense of 'sudden change'.

Freelance, as in an independent employee, is not difficult to see as two words, and from there to be seen as a soldier for hire, thus a synonym for the modern 'mercenary'.

Frequent or 'happening regularly' today, but in the sixteenth century had a number of uses - including 'crowded', 'well-known', and 'addicted'.

Fret, in the sense of 'worry' and not the metal ridge on a guitar, came from a word meaning 'to eat' and later 'chafe, irritate'.

Friend in the modern era is a casual association with an another, but historically, and including in the writings of Shakespeare, a friend was a 'lover'.


Frippery today might refer to gaudy clothing and rather tacky ornamentation, for most of its use in the English language it referred to quite the opposite and meant 'old clothing, cast-offs'.

Frump is an old fashioned person today, but as recently as the seventeenth century it could be used to mean 'hoax' or 'jeer' depending on the context.

Fun, like the previous word, was used to mean 'hoax' in the seventeenth century - and also 'practical joke' - while todayit's simply any amusement.

Fuzzy is today used to mean 'indistinct', but historically used in the sense of 'spongy' and particularly applied to land covered with grass or moss.

Sunday, 12 September 2021

That was not what I meant. (E)

Meanings of words don't change as much as usage, hence the reason the following list of words have apparently changed in meaning.

Eccentric may be used to mean 'strange, unusual' today, but began meaning 'not concentric', as in overlapping circles with different centres.

Emus are fast-running flightless birds from Australia, a continent famously explored by Captain James Cook from 1770. So how come the 'emu' is recorded over a century earlier? The answer is in the name being applied to other large flightless birds - in 1653 it was the cassowary and in the first part of the eighteenth century applied to the rhea.


Encroach may man 'trespass' today, but from the fourteenth century meant 'seize unlawfully',

Engine has but one use today, be it steam, petrol, electrical, etc, but historically used to mean 'plot, snare'.

Engross or occupy, earlier was used to mean 'buy wholesale'.

Entail or 'involve' today, but from the fourteenth century it was used as a legal term 'to settle an estate for the benefit of the heirs alone'.

Enthral may mean 'captivate' today, but three or four centuries ago was used in the sense of 'capture, hold in slavery'.

Entrepreneurs are associated with business undertakings today, but historically (the word came to English from the French for 'undertaker') it was used to describe an entertainment or musical undertaking.

Envisage, today a mental image, comes from the French and translates as 'look in the face', which is why it started as 'look straight at' in English.

Epicure, a reference to the finer things when wining and dining today, was first used in English in the sixteenth century to describe a 'womaniser' or 'glutton', depending on the context.


Equator, first used in the seventeenth century, then described the great circle around the heavens, not the earth. The image deminstrates this perfectly.


Excursion has come to refer to a journey for pleasure, but started out in English meaning 'escape'.

Exhibition is an odd word, which has come to mean a public showing, but first used in English to mean 'maintenance, allowance' and in the financial sense.

Expletive or swear word first came to English meaning 'filled out'.

Explode surely can't mean anything but 'detonate', but when it first appeared in English it was used to mean 'reject'.


Extinct came from Latin and meant 'to quench' before being used in the modern sense of 'died out'.

Extravagant, today used to mean 'overly proper', came from the Latin and was initially used to mean 'wandering about'.

Sunday, 5 September 2021

That was not what I meant. (D)

Another group of words where the use has changed over the years. It still happens, for example 'smart' is more often used as a synonym for 'clever' rather than 'soreness'.

Danger, in thirteenth century England, this word referred to 'dominion, power of the master'. Later uses included 'difficult to deal with' and reluctant to comply' before the modern sense of 'liable to cause injury' came about from the fourteenth century.


Demise today is associated with death, yet in the sixteenth century it was a legal term meaning 'transfer of an estate'.

Devious is today used to describe someone who is less than trustworthy. Historically, it was used to mean 'out of the way' or perhaps 'remote', Then, from the sixteenth century, it came to be used in the sense of 'straying' or even 'erring'.

Dial is probably one of the easiest words in this list to understand, today referring to a clockface (archaically also used for tuning a radio), but in antiquity it was used for what we would today call a 'sundial'. Interesting to note that in the push button age, we still 'dial' a telephone number even though the dial is long defunct.


Disaster is from the Greek and means 'bad star', which was the original English usage, too.

Disease, like the previous word, features the prefix 'dis' as in 'bad' or 'ill'. Indeed, the latter is exactly how it was used at first in English, to be 'ill at ease', which is just how you might feel if you had a disease today.

Dismal might be a synonym for 'dreary' today, but when first used in English was, just as in the original Latin, 'bad days'.

Dissolve might refer to anything being soluble today (although one can also dissolve into tears), but historically was used to mean 'release from life'.

Divan has evolved to refer to a couch or more often a bed, but began as something quite different in 'a book of accounts'.


Doodle began in the seventeenth century, when it did not mean 'to draw absentmindedly' but described a 'fool' or 'simpleton'. It is derived from the Low German dudeltopf.

Drab may not be complimentary when it comes to clothing, but it did begin as a word referring to cloth, coming to English from the French drap.

Dutch describes anyone or anything from the Netherlands (also known as Holland), but began as an error in fourteenth century English when they were describing Netherlanders as Deutsch or 'German'.


Dwell now means 'reside, live', but was originally used in English to mean 'to go astray', almost the reverse.

Sunday, 29 August 2021

That was not what I meant. (C)

Having started looking at words which have changed meaning - using 'it sucks' and 'it blows' in modern vernacular means the same thing - we shall continue with the next letter:

Career is not only used to mean one's chosen employment, but also used to mean 'rushing'. Although 'careering about' is now a rather dated phrase, it does show how it came from horsemanship. In the sixteenth century both 'horseracing' and 'galloping at top speed' were both likely to be described as 'careering'.

Chimneys may be a thing of yesteryear, albeit all gas appliances need a flue, but the original use referred to the fireplace, and not that above it. It came to English from the French in the fourteenth century.


Chuckle today means a quiet laugh, most often chuckling to oneself. Historically, it was still laughing, but what we would term a 'guffaw'. The change, and we have no real explanation as to how it changed, came about around 1800, about fifty years after Dr Johnson's dictionary defined it as 'laugh vehemently'.

Climax speaks of the high point, the best or most important moment. It came to English as a Greek word meaning 'ladder'. Another Greek word 'clue', originally meant 'ball of string'. The 'clue' in the ball of string was how Theseus found his way out of the labyrinth after killing the Minotaur.


Coast, as in shoreline, originally meant 'flank, side'. It is easy to see how one sense became the other.

Coax may mean 'to encourage' today, but when it first appeared in the sixteenth century it was used to mean 'fool, deceive'.

Cockney, to be a true cockney one must have been born within the sound of Bow Bells, once had a very different meaning. In the fourteenth century it referred to a small and misshapen hen's egg. It was also used to mean 'spoilt child' or 'milksop'.


Comedy is used to refer to an amusing performance, but in the fourteenth century it referred to any poem which didn't have a dismal ending.

Complexion refers to the colouring and texture of the facial skin. Originating in the Latin complex or 'combination', it has given us meanings such as 'weave' and also, for those who recall such things, the four humours of blood, phlegm, yellow bile, and black bile, on which medicine was based.

Cope, meaning to manage today, once had a very different meaning and spoke of those 'coming to blows'.

Croon may be a somewhat dated expression today, the crooners were the music sensations of their day in the thirties and forties, but earlier still 'to croon' was to 'murmur, hum' in the eighteenth century, and four hundred years earlier spoke of one who would 'bellow, roar'.


Crowd used to mean 'press on, push' in the fourteenth century.

Sunday, 22 August 2021

That's Not What I Meant (B)

Having started looking at words which have changed meaning - younger generations use 'wicked' to mean 'good' and must be really confused by the Wicked Witch of the West being the baddie in that appalling or classic film, depending on your point of view - we shall continue with the next letter:

Baffle today has two meanings, most often used to mean 'bewilder' or 'perplex', but also used to describe the process of dampening down a noise. Yet in the sixteen century there are records of this being used as a synonym for 'disgrace'. Just how we get from that to the modern form is a mystery.

Balderdash may describe the use of nonsense speech or writing, but six centuries ago it was used instead of 'froth' or 'suds'.


Bane, the cause of great stress or annoyance today, but read Shakespeare and note the earlier meaning was 'murderer'. This can still be seen when '-bane' is used in the suffix of plants such as fleabane, henbane, ratsbane, and wolfsbane - all of which are poisonous.

Barbecue, now a meal cooked over a grill out of doors and which, when poorly controlled, mean all the smoke and charred fumes enter through the neighbours' windows, once had a different meaning. It comes from Haiti, where the local word referred to a lattice of sticks which gave the chance to sleep a metre above the ground and the insects. The same frame was later used to roast animals .......

Buccaneer, as we all know is a pirate or adventurer. Yet as in the previous word 'barbecue' this can be traced back to that same raised platform for sleeping and later grilling, those grilling their meat this way known as Buccaneers.

Bask, as in the sun, is something many enjoy in the summer months. Perhaps it is a good job the original basking sense has been forgotten, for in the fourteenth century it described a person bathing in blood.

Batch is a group of things, perhaps a set. Although not heard as often as it once was, a 'batch' is also a small loaf. That latter definition is of interest because originally the word 'batch' meant 'baking'. It is easy to see how 'an amount being baked' became simply 'an amount'.


Beach today is invariably a sandy strip along the shore. Earlier it meant 'shingle' or 'pebbles' - not the shoreline of such but the small stones themselves.

Bead needs no explanation, these are the small decorative items strung on a thread and associated with terms such as rosaries or prayer beads. Those prayer beads are relevant as 'bead' originally meant 'prayer' and shares an origin with 'bid'.


Beam as in a long piece of wood, such as a plank, is a modern idea. But in the early days of the English language, more than a thousand years ago, the word was a synonym for 'tree', as can still be seen in names such as 'hornbeam' and 'whitebeam'.

Blunt, as in 'not sharp', is the only use today, but earlier it was used to mean 'dull' but not as in 'blunt' but as in 'stupid'.

Boast was used to mean 'loud voice' for most of the time and only got its modern meaning of 'brag' in the eighteenth century.

Bombs today are generally used to refer to explosive devices dropped from the air or planted in a chosen location and detonated remotely (or by using a timer). Historically, it was an explosive device fired from a mortar. When first used in the seventeenth it was pronounced 'bum' and today there is an increasing tendency to pronounce the final 'b', something which will likely become the norm - but this is simply the evolution of the English language, however annoying it may seem to some (including me).

Bonkers is a surpringly modern word, unrecorded before the twentieth century. Today it is used to me 'crazy, mad, batty', but when first used it described someone who was 'slightly tipsy'.

Breath, correctly that which is expelled from the lungs when exhaled - which is why you can only see your breath on cold mornings after breathing out - and the reason why it did have the alternative use of meaning 'vapour', has for most of the life of English (ie fifteen centuries) has been used to mean 'odour, smell'.

Brook is mostly used to refer to smaller water courses, but also has the sense of 'pit up with, tolerate', and that latter sense is where the change has occurred. Yet until five hundred years ago, the word was used to mean both 'use' and 'enjoy' - compare the modern German brauchen.


Brothel is only ever used to mean one thing today - I'm assuming that meaning requires no explanation - but that meaning has only been in use since the seventeenth century. For the century previous it had been used as a synonym for 'prostitute', but for the majority of the timehas referred simply to a 'worthless person'.

Bulb, that from which plants such as daffodils and tulips grow, has only been in use since the late seventeenth century. Prior to that, a bulb was only used to describe the 'onion'.

Bully, a person who is cruel to another, dominance usually based on size alone, has only been used in this sense for three centuries. Prior to that the meaning was very different and seen in such as Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream "What sayst thou. nully Bottom?" Now any devotee of the Bard will know Bottom is never a bully in the modern sense, but would certainly be considered a bully in the historic sense, for it has gone from one extreme to the other and originally meant 'fine fellow' with regard to men and 'sweetheart' in regard to the ladies.


Bunny, now a child's name for a rabbit, is first recorded as 'bunny rabbit' in 1690. Here the original sense is used to describe the rabbit, for it was a term of endearment, especially for a woman or child. Incidentally, the word 'rabbit' was once only used for the young of those lagomorphs, the adult being known as a 'coney', itself pronounced to rhyme with 'money' and undoubtedly the reason it fell out of use in Victorian times.


Buxom today means ..... well, buxom. Until the twelfth century it was used to mean 'obedient, compliant', until the sixteenth century 'flexible, blithe', and only comparatively recently as 'well-rounded, attractive'.