Examples of Words that Have Changed Meaning Over Time

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Examples of Words that Have Changed Meaning Over Time

Language is ever-evolving, and we are in a constant state of change. As language changes, the meaning of words also evolves, and what once meant something else could now mean something entirely different. Here are a few examples of words that have changed meaning over time:

1. Awful

Today, the word “awful” describes something terrible, bad, or unpleasant. However, when the word first surfaced in the early 1300s, it meant something much different. Initially, it described something that inspired wonder and had a sense of awe or fear.

Later, in the 16th century, it became a term to describe something that was full of awe or admiration, such as “awful beauty.” But somewhere between the 16th and 17th century, this word changed yet again into its modern usage and took on a pejorative overtone.

2. Gay

Nowadays, the term “gay” describes someone who is homosexual. However, this hasn’t always been the case. The word’s origin traced back to Middle English when it described someone who was joyous or happy.

During the 20th century, the term “gay” began to be used as a euphemism for homosexuality, and over time, the term has now come to be a widely accepted and celebrated label for the LGBTQ+ community.

3. Nice

Today, “nice” means someone or something that is pleasant or agreeable, but the history of the word “nice” is much more complicated than that. It’s an interesting history as the meaning of the word remained stable for a more extended period than many other words.

The word “nice” dates back to the 13th century, when it described something foolish or stupid. It later transformed into something that was well-dressed, precise or meticulous. From there, it went on to describe something that was finely judged, refined, fastidious, and later, something pleasant, agreeable, or likable.

4. Meat

Today, meat refers to animal flesh that is prepared for human consumption. Initially, the meaning of meat was much broader, and it described all types of food, including fruit, vegetables, and bread.

As time passed, the term “meat” started to narrow in scope and was used to describe flesh food only, over time losing its previous, broader sense.

5. Broadcast

Another fascinating example is the word “broadcast.” Today, we use it to describe sending messages widely or the distribution of media content. However, when the word was first coined in the 16th century, it was exclusively an agricultural term. Broadcast meant scattering seed by sowing it widely by hand instead of planting it in neat rows like we do today.

Over time, the term was adapted to describe the dissemination of information, and by the 20th century, it had become a staple in the television and radio industries.


In summary, language is always changing, and so is the meaning of words. These examples show that words can change from one meaning to another entirely opposite meaning, broaden or narrow the scope of their meaning, or transform into entirely different contexts. A single word can embody decades, even centuries of history, which makes language a unique reflection of our society and culture.

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