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. Here are some commonly-used words whose meanings have changed drastically over time.
In modern English, an “apology” is a formal statement of regret. You might apologize when you can’t make an event or when you feel that you have wronged someone in some way. In the sixteenth century, however, an apology was a formal defense against an accusation. It came to English via French and Latin, which have words derived from the Greek word “apologia.” The original meaning survives in the form of “apologetics,” written works that defend a particular religious faith, doctrine, or belief.
Today, the word “awful” means terrible or horrific. It can also be used to emphasize the extent or severity of something. However, awful didn’t always have an entirely negative connotation. Originally, the word meant inspiring reverential wonder or fear. This makes sense if you consider how the word itself is structured. Awful literally meant “full of awe,” in the same way that successful and joyful mean “full of success” and “full of joy,” respectively, in modern English.
“Fool,” a derogatory term than means “stupid,” had a more nuanced meaning in the past than in does now. In Shakespeare’s time, a fool could also refer to a court jester. Several of his plays refer to a “fully licensed fool,” a professional performer appointed by the king whose job it was to behave in clownish and moronic manner at court. As part of the persona he was playing, a fool could get away with saying things critical of the king and court that virtually anyone else would be harshly punished for.
Fools in the sense that we mean them today also existed alongside professional fools in many of Shakespeare’s plays. These “natural fools” were often treated with a paradoxical combination of derision and reverence. Their disability and/or madness were thought to provide fools with insights and wisdom that were inaccessible to “sane” men. Fool was also occasionally used a term of endearment. In the play of the same name, King Lear refers to his daughter Cordelia as “my poor fool” upon learning that she has been killed.
Unlike the other words on this list, “gay” has changed meaning fairly recently. From the 1960s onwards, gay been considered the most widely-accepted term used to describe male homosexuals. The older use of gay, meaning carefree, bright, or showy, is rarely used today. While it is extremely difficult (not to mention insensitive) to try to use the traditional meaning of gay in contemporary conversation, this meaning appeared frequently in works of popular fiction well-through the mid-twentieth century.
Naughty, which today means badly behaved rude, or indecent, is derived from the Old English would “naught.” This word means nothing, as in the sense of having nothing or being poor and needy. Naughty (with the added “y”) didn’t acquire its current usage until sometime in the late sixteenth century.
A “nice” person is one who is pleasant to be around. Yet, this seemingly innocuous compliment actually began as an insult. The Middle English equivalent of nice meant stupid or ignorant. A “nice” person at that time was someone who was unsophisticated and/or unaware of proper customs and manners.
Like the word awful, “terrible” once had stronger and broader connotations than it does now. Literally meaning “causing terror or awe,” terrible was a title fit for the sixteenth century Russian Czar Ivan the Terrible, whose reign inspired widespread fear. “The Terror” was a period of the French Revolution marked by extreme bloodshed. Terms such as “reign of terror” and “terrorist” have their origins in this time period, when the word terror had a far more severe meaning than simply very, very bad.