With spring marking the changing weather, when the cold winter winds are swapped for floral-filled days, it got me thinking about how the meaning of words also changes. One of the continuing controversies of my job is dealing with that fickle aspect of the English language, words that change their meaning – known as a semantic shift. If you look at the history of any English word at random, chances are it had a different meaning originally.

The word nice, from the Latin nescius, ‘ignorant’  once meant ‘silly’ and has had many a meaning since then, including ‘precise’ (still used, as in ‘a  nice distinction’ or ‘a nicety’), ‘scrupulous’, ‘subtle’  and ‘shy’ all the way to the present ‘pleasant’.  Phew. Manufacture came from Latin manu ‘hand’ and factum ‘make’ – meaning ‘make by hand’, the very opposite of its present meaning, ‘make with machinery’.

A computer used to mean a person who performed calculations. Like most things in life, including ourselves, languages evolve and change over the years. The reasons for these changes are manyfold.  One is that the meaning that is most often used squeezes out the other meanings. For example, awful once meant ‘inspiring wonder (or fear)’, like our current ‘awesome’. The ‘fear’ meaning was used more often than the ‘wonder’ and so speakers forgot about that meaning altogether.

Dismal originally meant ‘unlucky days’ from the Latin dies mali. In medieval times, some people considered two days of each month to be unlucky.  When they said ‘a dismal day’, they meant one of those two days. Now dismal has evolved from ‘unlucky days’ to just ‘gloomy’.

Tell once meant ‘to count’ and is related to ‘tale’.  Notice that recount also means ‘to tell’ – and this is why a person who counts money is a bank teller.  The meaning may have come from the sense of counting aloud and gradually moved away from the ‘counting’ meaning and stuck with the ‘aloud’  sense. Reader Vic Schmid recently took me to task for providing the clue ‘acute remorse’, for the word angst, because his understanding was that angst came from the German language where it means  ‘fear’. This is a classic example of the English language borrowing a word from another language and then altering the meaning. The Collins dictionary defines angst as ‘an acute sense of anxiety or remorse’.

The Macquarie Dictionary has announced it’s adding a new definition of the word misogyny,  which may be due to Prime Minister Julia Gillard’s fiery speech about sexism and misogyny. The current definition says misogyny is a hatred of women, which is not quite what she meant.  The new meaning, ‘an entrenched prejudice against women’ reflects the way this word is used nowadays. As Sue Butler, editor of Macquarie  Dictionary said, “Many words change their meanings over time”.

I’d love to know which word change has perplexed, baffled, or intrigued you the most. As spring has begun I hope you are all enjoying warmer weather and some much-needed sunshine.  Happy puzzling!