Yet 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.


This modern English word for a supernatural messenger of God is a merger of two words, the Old English engel and the Old French angele. Both of these words come from the Late Latin angelus. The Latin word, in turn, comes from the Greek angelos, which means any kind of messenger.


In modern English, an infant means a baby or very young child. However, the word originally referred to any child too young to speak. This broader meaning reflects infant’s Latin source, which literally means “unable to speak” or “not speaking.”


Pretty originally meant “clever, cunning, deceitful, or skillful” and parallels the development of adjectives such as canny, fine, and nice. The word has its origins in the Old English prættig, which is related to the Middle Dutch pertich (“brisk or clever”) and the obsolete Dutch prettig (‘humorous or sporty”). It is unclear how pretty finally made the leap to the modern English meaning of “physically attractive or pleasing.”


Silly has its origins in the Old English gesælig, meaning “happy, fortuitous, or prosperous.” Between the 12th and 13th centuries, the word evolved to mean “blessed or pious,” then “innocent,” then “harmless, then “pitiable,” and then “weak.” Silly finally arrived at its modern meaning around the 1570s, when it came to mean “feeble in mind, lacking in reason, or foolish.”


Surly, meaning “bad-tempered and unfriendly,” is derived from the obsolete sirly, meaning “lordly or majestic.” The word shifted to its modern meaning at some point during the 16th century, when it came to mean “arrogant or haughty” or “lordly” in a pejorative sense.