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Even More Words Whose Meanings Have Changed Over Time


This week, we’re going to look at another five words whose meanings have changed over time. English, like any living language, continues to grow and change. New words are created, old words fall out of use, and existing words take on new meanings. Many common English words have very different meanings now than they did in older forms of English. Knowing these older meanings can make reading earlier English works considerably easier and provide a greater appreciate of how the language is still evolving to this day.



While afford now means to have enough money to pay for something, the word originally meant to move forward. This earlier meaning came from the Old English geforthian (to further), which itself was a derivation of “forth.”



This Middle English word comes from the Old French bacheler. Historically, bachelor referred to a young knight serving under another’s banner. Modern meanings of the word echo different aspects of its historical usage. A “bachelor” is a single, unmarried man, and a “bachelor’s degree” is the title awarded upon the completion of an undergraduate course at a college or university.



The current meaning of crave (to desire or want) dates from late Middle English. However, crave also has an older meaning: to demand or claim as a right. As with afford, this meaning comes from an Old English word. In this case, the word is crafian, a word of Germanic origin with related words in both Danish and Swedish.



A colloquial term for acid indigestion, heartburn’s original meaning was more emotional than physical. In the thirteenth century, heartburn quite literally meant “a burning desire of the heart” and encompassed such passionate emotions as anger, jealousy, and lust. Compared to some of the other words we’ve covered, the original meaning of heartburn had a relatively short run. By the fifteenth century, the word had become associated almost exclusively with its modern meaning.



The mid seventeenth century word “senile” comes from the Old Latin senex by way of the French sénile and Latin senilis. While the modern English word refers specifically to an elderly person suffering from dementia, the original word simply meant “old man.”

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