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, change, and evolve. 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.
In modern English, “artificial” is the opposite of natural and means that someone or something is man-made, fake, insincere, or synthetic. Historically, however, the word was used to describe someone who was “artful or cunning.” In other words, “artificial” indicated that someone was quite literally full of artistic skill.
This word originated in the 16th century as a compliment. Originally, “bully” was an expression of admiration or approval equivalent to saying that someone was “admirable, gallant, or jolly.” Today, the word has entirely negative connotations. A “bully” is someone who uses power or strength to harm, harass, or intimidate those who are weaker. “To bully” means to engage in this same sort of behavior.
Historically, “decimate” meant to remove (i.e. kill) one tenth of a population as a punishment for the whole group. This makes sense, as “deca” is a Greek measurement for units of ten. In modern English, decimate is usually used less precisely. For example, if you hear a person say that a local population was “decimated” by a natural disaster, the speaker usually means that a large percentage of the population was wiped out.
In modern English, “fantastic” indicates that something is absolutely incredible. However, the word originally had a much more literal meaning: existing only in someone’s imagination. This meaning survives in the word “fantasy,” which has the same Latin root.
A “sly” person is someone who has a cunning and deceitful nature. While the modern word almost always has negative connotations, its Middle English equivalent simply meant “dexterous” (agile or able to move). The original Norse word “slœgr” does mean cunning but not in the deceptive manner that the modern English derivation does.