Five everyday words that don't mean what you think they do

Articles of this type usually claim that the correct meaning of a word is in its earliest usage, while later developments are bogus. Disinterested doesn’t mean “not interested,” it means “impartial,” they complain. Decimate must refer to the destruction of exactly one-tenth of something they are protesting against. Fulsome can only mean “insincere” and not “very full”, they cry.

This may seem logical enough, but it doesn’t quite work in some cases. Here we apply the principle of earliest meaning to five common words and get some pretty unexpected results.


This word comes from Old English prættig , “List”, from præt “Trick” – regardless Prat “Idiot” originally referring to the buttocks (hence Pratfall : a fall on the back).

Up to the 15th century it was pretty neatly made, artfully or ingeniously described. This resulted in someone being described as attractive or handsome – most often a woman or child, though the diary writer Samuel Pepys refers to a Dr. Clarke as “a very handsome man”.

Ironic uses of pretty to refer to something unpleasant are the origins of phrases like “pretty passport”, “pretty condition” and “pretty fish kettle”; The latter occurs more often in the phrase “other fish kettle”. The kettle here is not the way we make tea, but a large cooking vessel (from Latin) Catillus ).


Big is from an old English word that means “quick” or “active”. Until the 15th century it meant “handsome” or “elegant”. Its use to mean “dexterous” led to the expressions “big by hand” which means “handy” and “big of tongue” which means “good at argument”.

Uses related to altitude emerged in the 16th century. Subsequent metaphorical expansions include “large,” as in “great order,” and “exaggerated,” from which the term “great story” emerged. These changes in meaning may seem surprising, but some common adjectives that describe our physical appearances began life with reference to dexterity and dexterity. Handsome, as the name suggests, originally meant “easy to handle,” “clever” meant “skillful,” and “buxom” meant “obedient” (from “bow” means “bow your neck”).


Someone who was silly in Old English was “happy” or “happy” and later “pious” or “holy”. Since the innocent can easily be exploited, this signaled a person who was classified as “weak” or “helpless”. Other negative associations arise from its use as “rustic” or “lack of sophistication”, which gave rise to our modern sense of “stupid”.

This process, in which a compliment becomes the term abuse, is what linguists refer to as “pejoration” (from Latin) Peior “worse”). Its opposite, “amelioration” (from Latin Melior “Better”), can be seen in history as “nice”, which originally meant “stupid” (from Latin) Nescius “ignorant”).


In Old English, being naughty, being poor, literally meant “having nothing” or “nothing”. It was later used to describe someone who is immoral and, in a weakened sense, malicious or disobedient. The special connection with badly behaved children led to the “naughty corner” – a place of isolation a child can be sent to as punishment.

Perhaps it was Victorian associations of the naughty corner that led to the invention of the “naughty step,” a form of discipline advocated by the UK reality television show Super nannywhose transatlantic success led to its launch in the United States.

Its use to mean “indecent” survives in modern usage in sentences such as “naughty but nice”. This phrase was promoted by cream cake advertisements in the 1980s and was the Idea of ​​the writer Salman Rushdiewhile he was working as a copywriter. “Naughty Bits,” relating to the genitals, was first recorded in a 1970 Monty Python sketch. This euphemism was and was considered too explicit for the American audience beeped when the show aired in the United States.


This word comes from Old English sæd what “full” meant, like the German Fed up still does. In English it has been replaced by “satisfied” or “satiated” from Latin in this sense satis “enough”.

In the 14th century, sad meant “sedentary”, “steadfast” or “determined”, and from this the senses “serious” and “serious” developed.

The modern use of sad and “sad” can be traced back to ancient English, where the word already felt like it was tired or tired of something, reflecting the way satisfaction quickly turns into boredom. Surprisingly, we were brought “happy” by the Vikings, who sacked the north of England and borrowed from Old Norse happy that filled the gap left by changing the use of “silly”. It originally meant “luck” – a meaning that is retained in the phrase “by lucky chance”.

Therefore, to claim that we are using words incorrectly is to ignore the different ways in which the meanings of words change over time. In the case of Fulsome, “very full” is the earlier of the two senses. Its use as “excessive” arose out of “violent apologies” that were perceived as insincere – as Priti found Patel at her expense in her resignation letter from 2017.

The casual use of decimation as “devastating” is recorded from the 17th century. Can it really be wrong today? And if we insisted on sanctioning only the earliest possible use – killing every tenth of an army of mutinous soldiers – how often would we use it? So feel free to not care or lavish praise on this post. Trying to restrict the use of words is just silly – in its modern rather than medieval meaning.

Simon Horobin, Professor of English Language and Literature, Oxford University

This article is republished by The conversation under a Creative Commons license. read this original article.


Leave a Comment