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Welcome to The Mad Logophile. Here, we explore words; their origins, evolution, usage. Words are alive; they are born, they change and, sometimes, they die. They are our principal tool for communicating with one another. There are millions of words yet only an estimated 171,476 words are in common current use. As a logophile, I enjoy discovering new words, using them and learning about their origins. Won't you join me?

When this topic was first suggested, I thought it might be difficult to find enough words for a diary. How wrong I was! Once I started, the words just kept piling up. Some of the changes inspire a "WTF?" response. I'm not even counting words that just evolved naturally from one meaning to another. No, there are so many words that have changed their meanings so completely that I have to split the list in half. So, we do A-M this week...

How do words change meaning? One way is semantic change. In historical linguistics, semantic change is a change in one of the meanings of a word. Every word has a variety of connotations which can be added to, removed or altered over time. Sometimes this occurs to the extent that words from one point in time have very different meanings in relation to another time. An good example of a recent semantic change is of the word mouse; with the advent of computer technology, the word for the animal has been used to refer to the device.

Another way words change meaning is through their transmission from one language to another and the influence of other languages and cultures. Throughout history many nations, through conquering or intermixing with one another, introduced their own languages into the existing one. Sometimes a word just doesn't translate well. Just one of the pitfalls of any word in its path through the wonderful world of language.

Other ways they change meaning include pejoration, the process by which a word's meaning worsens or degenerates and amelioration, in which a word's meaning improves or becomes elevated. Then there are generalization (a word's meaning widens to include new concepts), and specialization (a word's meaning contracts to focus on fewer concepts).

I haven't given the current definition in the following list except in a couple of obscure cases. I know you know the current meaning of these words. Boy, I love writing for really smart people.


To abandon meant "to subjugate, subdue," from the phrase mettre à bandon "to give up to a public ban."
Until the mid-16th century, abode was defined as a verbal noun; "the action of waiting." The vowel change is consistent with an Old English strong verb (ride/rode, etc.).
If you were a magus in the Middle Ages, you knew that abracadabra was a mystical word used on an amulet which was written out in a triangle shape and worn around the neck to ward off sickness.
Abscond used to refer to the act of hiding oneself especially to escape debt or the law.
Accent originally meant "to sing" from the Latin, canere. It is a loan-translation of the Greek prosoidia, (pros "to" + oide "song") which apparently described the pitch scheme in Greek verse.
Something across used to mean "in a crossed position," literally "on cross" from Anglo-French an cros.
If a thing was actual, it was "pertaining to an action." From Old French actuel "now existing, up to date," from the Latin actualis "active."
The name of a species of snake, an adder is an example of transference of a letter. It was originally "nadder" but the pronunciation "a nadder" eventually became "an adder." The same thing happened the the "napron" which became "an apron."
The original meaning of addict was "to award as a slave." It is from the Latin addictus which, in Roman law, meant "a debtor awarded as a slave to his creditor."
An Admiral once described (in English, at least) an emir or prince under the Sultan. It comes from the Arabic amir, "commander of." So, in Arabic, admiral always meant "emir of the sea" but it took English speakers awhile to figure that out and ascribe the correct definition.
Once, something aerial was imaginary or "thin as air."
If a thing was affirmed, it was strengthend or made firm. From Latin affirmare, "strengthen, make firm," from firmus "strong."
Once, affluent meant "flowing freely in great quantity." From the Latin affluentem, "flow towards."
To afford meant to go forward, from Old English geforðian "to advance." The spelling changed, too. The "d" was once a "th" and the "af-" was "ad-". It was changed in the mistaken belief that it was a Latinate word. Even etymologists mess up now and then.
The aftermath was originally a second crop of grass grown after the first had been harvested. It was spelled "aftermowth" then.
Ahoy was once a Viking battle cry meaning "look!"
Almost first meant "mostly all."
Those of us ladies who sing alto will be surprised that it originally meant "man with an high voice," from the Latin altus, "high."
In the 13th century if you were amazed, you were alarmed or terrified. Back then, amasian meant "stupefy, make crazy."
 title=An ambulance once brought the hospital to the patient. It kept the name when it reversed the process. It comes originally from French hôpital ambulant, literally "walking (hospital)," a mobile or field hospital.
Amend once meant to reform or convert a person. From Latin emendare "to correct, free from fault."
An army's ammunition once described all of its supplies.
To amuse once meant to distract someone for the purpose of misleading them, "delude, deceive." From the Middle French amuser, "divert, cause to muse."
An angel was once a messenger of a more mundane origin; a hireling. It comes from the Greek aggelos, "messenger."
To annihilate once meant "to make null and void" and described agreements and contracts.
Apology once meant to defend against an accusation. From the Greek apologia, "defense."
In ancient Rome, an aquarium was a place to water cattle.
That pretty armoire was once used to store weapons.
Artificial originally meant "full of artistic or technical skill."
To aspire meant to breathe into. From the Latin spirare, "to breathe."
Auburn was originally a brownish-white color, from Latin albus "white." Another example of an etymological mistake.
Awful once meant "full of awe" i.e. something wonderful, delightful, amazing. It was often used in religious descriptions and sometimes still is.
Originally baccalaureate was a play on words of bacca lauri "laurel berry" (laurels were awarded for academic success).
A bachelor was a young man hoping to become a knight. Even before that, he was a poor young soldier.
A backlog was the huge log placed in the back of the fire that would smolder for days.
Bail once meant a water carrier or a person charged with a responsibility. From the French baillier, "to carry; to take charge."
Balderdash once described a frothy liquid.
A balloon was once a game played with a large inflated leather ball. It comes from the French ballon, "large ball."
Banyan was originally the word for a Hindu trader. When European traders visited them in Bandar Abbas, so the story goes, there was a pagoda there under a huge fig tree. This is where the trading went on. So they called it a banyan tree. From the Sanskrit, vanija "merchant."
Barley was an adjective meaning "to flour."
A barnacle was a species of wild goose." The goose nests in the Arctic in summer and returns to Europe in the winter, so its reproduction was a mystery. It was believed to hatch from barnacle's shell, possibly because the crustacean's feathery stalks resemble goose down.
A basement was once a toilet.
A belfry was originally a wooden siege tower on wheels. From Middle German bercfrit "protecting shelter" (bergen "to protect" + frid "peace"). The spelling was altered by the new association with the word "bell."
A bellboy was once the boy who rang the ship's bell.
Bidet meant "pony," referring to the position one took when using it.
Bimbo, from the Italian for "little child," once meant "tough guy" or "one of the boys."
If a thing was bleak, it was white. From Old Norse bleikr "pale."
To bless was originally to redden with blood, as in a sacrifice. The Old English word bledsung was used as a translation of Greek and Hebrew words in the Bible that meant to speak well of and to kneel, respectively.
Brave was used at one time to signify someone who was showy or gaudy.
To broadcast meant to sow seeds in a sweeping motion.
A brothel was once a low-life or worthless person.
A buggy whip used to be something to help control the horses pulling a buggy. Now it's the antenna on a dune buggy.
Bugle once described a drinking horn or a hunting horn.
 title=A bureau was originally a cloth covering for a desk, from burel "coarse woolen cloth" (as a cover for writing desks), diminutive of Old French bure "dark brown cloth."
To be buxom was once to be "compliant, meek, obedient, humble." From Old English bugen "to bow" + -som, creating "capable of being bent."
Cabinet is diminutive for cabin from Old French and translates as "little gambling house," which is what it first was.
To capitulate used to mean to negotiate.
Careful once meant "full of anxiety."
A carol was once a non-religious ring dance.
Cauldrons started out as something for heating people, not food. From the Latin caladarium, "hot bath."
Century once described a 100-man Roman army.
If you had charisma, you had the god-given gift to perform miracles. From the Greek kharis, "god-given favor."
As an adjective, cheap is fairly recent. Its ultimate source goes back to the Latin noun caupo, "tradesman." The original sense is preserved in the surname Chapman.
The early meaning of clay was "material of the human body."
Clergy first meant "learning, scholarship," and clerk was the word for a man ordained into the Christian ministry.
Climate originally denoted a zone of the earth between two lines of latitude.
Originally meaning "to fasten with a nail," cloy began as a verb. It was reduced from acloy, based on the Latin for "nail," clavus.
The first meaning of coax was "to make a fool of," in slang phrase to make a coax of.
A coil was once a noisy disturbance or a confused noise.
The noun compass, was once an adjective meaning "cunning, cleverness, ingenuity."
Complexion first meant a person's physical nature and because that was thought to be revealed by the color and texture of the skin, it came to describe the appearance of facial skin.
If you confused someone, you brought them to ruin. From Latin confusionem, a noun of action from confundere "to pour together," (com- "together" + fundere "to pour").
Conserve once meant to observe a custom or rite.
A corsage was once a word for the bodice of a woman's dress.
Counterfeit once denoted a perfect copy.
To crave once meant to demand as a legal right.
Cuff once described a glove or mitten.
Cute is a shortened form of acute, meaning "keenly perceptive; shrewd."
If you were daft, you were not silly but "mild and meek." From the Germanic word gadaftjaz, it was probably influenced by analogy with daffe "halfwit."
The original sense of dainty was "substantial and able," a complete 360 from nowadays!
Damp once described noxious vapors or smoke.
A dapper person was once a heavy person.  
One wrote on a davenport rather than sit on it, as it once referred to a writing desk.
Debacle comes from the French debacler, "to unbar or free." It originally meant to break up ice on a river.
To deduce once meant "to lead," from the Latin ducere, "lead."
In a huge change, defecate used to mean to purify something. From Latin defæcatus, "cleanse from dregs, purify."
A deft person was once gentle and meek.
To denounce was to give official information. From the Latin denuntiare, "declare, proclaim."
Depend once meant to be suspended, as an icicle from an eave.
Derive originally meant to conduct water from a source. From the Latin phrase de rivo (de "from" + rivus "stream").
To desire literally meant to study the stars carefully and was an astrological term.
Diaper is from the Greek word diaspros, "pure white." It originally described a fabric with a pattern of small diamonds.
Disclose once meant to open a hatch.
Discotheque is from the French for a record library.
A dogma was once simply an opinion. From Greek dogmatos "opinion, tenet," literally "that which one thinks is true."
 title=Doll was originally a familiar form of the proper name Dorothy.
Doom used to mean a statute or law, judgment or decree.
If you doused someone, you punched them. There is no connection, etymologically, to the current meaning.
To dribble once meant to shoot an arrow short or wide of its target.
Drive still carries the meaning of operating a vehicle but through semantic-shift, it is coming to mean any means of recording information.
Dump originally meant reverie or "absence of mind." It is possibly a figurative use of the Middle Dutch domp, "haze or mist."
Originally, eager described something sharp or biting, as in the air, and "pungent, sour." From the Latin acris, "keen, sharp."
To edify once meant to put up a building. From the Latin ædificare, "to build, construct."
An egghead was originally a bald person. Baldness was once seen as a sign of wisdom.
Eke used to be a noun for an addition or reinforcement or an increase.
Elongate first meant to move or remove something. From Latin elongare, "remove to a distance" (ex- "out" + longus "long").
At first, elope meant that a woman was running away from her husband with her lover.
To embarrass once meant to hamper or obstruct. From the French embarrasser, literally "to block."
Emphasis originally meant "appearance."
Empty first meant at leisure or unoccupied and could also mean "unmarried." From Latin æmetta, "leisure."
Engross originally described using large handwriting or to write in a large clear hand.
Entail first meant to carve or cut. From Latin taliare "to cut."
The description of ethnic used to mean someone who was neither Jewish nor Christian. From the Greek ethnikos, "heathen."
Evil used to mean nothing more sinister than "uppity."
If you were taking an excursion, you were running away or escaping.
Exorbitant was originally a term for a legal case outside the scope of the law.
Another 360 in meaning, to exorcise once was to conjure up and command an evil spirit. From the Latin ex- "out" + horkos "oath".
An expletive used to be a person or thing that served to fill space. From Latin explere, "fill out," (ex- "out" + plere "to fill").
Facetious originally described someone who was polished and/or had urbane manners.
Facial started as a religious term meaning "face-to-face, open."
From the Old Norse fanga, fang once meant "prey, spoils, a seizing or taking."
Something flabby was once damp or clammy.
Flinch used to mean to slink away.
Coarse grass was once called fog and a place that was foggy was covered with grass or mossy.
Forehead originally meant an expression which was easily conveyed by the face, such as innocence or anger.
The early meaning of frippery was second hand clothes rather than finery.
Garble originally meant "to sort out" and was applied to the selection and sorting of passages from someone's writings, a separation of the good from the bad.
From Old French garniss, "provide, furnish," garnish was first the term for dinnerware and things in use at the table.
Gauche used to mean left-handed, an example of the prejudice against the left. See...? It goes way back.
Gay, until fairly recently, used to mean "merry, happy, carefree."  
Girl used to be the term for a young person of either sex.
A glade was once an area of water not frozen over but surrounded by ice.
The earliest meaning of gravel was "sand." From Old French gravele, a diminutive of grave "sand, seashore."
To grin once meant to scowl or show the teeth as a sign or anger.
Guess meant to take aim, as with a weapon.
Hanker is from the Flemish hankeren and originally meant to hang about or loiter.
In its earliest meaning, a harbinger was a host or one who provided lodging. From Old French herbergier "provide lodging."  
A harlot first meant a rascal or low fellow or a vagabond or beggar. From the Latin harlotus, "vagabond."
If you had heartburn you wouldn't reach for Tums because you were jealous or full of hatred.
The greeting "hello" used to be an exclamation of surprise dating back to the Middle Ages. From the French hallow, "to pursue by shouting." Thomas Edison popularized the current use.
Another exclamation, this one of excitement, exuberance or happiness, heyday is from the Saxon heh-doeg, "high day."
Hilarity used to mean simple cheerfulness or "calm joy."
 title=A hospital was once a place for the reception and entertainment of travelers and pilgrims. From the Latin hospitalis, "hospitality."
An icon was originally a term used in speaking or writing meaning "simile."
Once, an idiot was simply a layman as opposed to a clergyman.
Something impertinent was unrelated or unconnected. From Latin impertinentem, "not belonging."  
In a stunning switch, to imprecate went from meaning "to pray for" to now meaning "to wish evil upon."
Infant means "unable to speak" in Latin from in- "not" + fari "speak." It could apply to a child of any age, not just a baby.
Someone in the infantry was too young to be allowed to serve in the cavalry.
An inmate was originally someone who shared a house or a lodger/tenant in someone's house.
To insult first meant to "leap on the prostrate body of a foe." It was usually used in a military sense of a surprise assault. From the Latin saltus, "leap."
If you invested in someone, you clothed them (Latin in- + vestere, "to clothe"). Investment once meant "putting clothes (vestments) on."
Jumbo is from the Swahili jambe, meaning "chief" and originally described a large and clumsy person.
Your keister used to be your suitcase or satchel.
A knave once meant a child or youth and a knight was simply a boy or a servant. Both are from the Old English cniht "boy, youth, servant."
Lady and lord are both from the Old English hlaf, "bread." The lady, or hlafdige, was once "the one who kneads the bread." The lord, or hlafweard, was the "guardian of the loaf."
Last once had the meaning of "highest, utmost."
The sweet-smelling lavender maybe wasn't so sweet-smelling originally as it was a word for "laundress." Lavender got its name from the custom of adding it to the laundry.
Left originally meant "weak" yet another example of the eternal bias against the left.
A legacy first was the office, function or commission of a legate. A legate was originally an "authorized representative of the Pope," from Latin legatus, "provided with a commission."
Levity was once thought to be the opposite force from gravity; the force which pulled in the other direction. From Latin levis, "light" in weight.
Mahogany was once a word for the dining room table.
Manage was once a noun meaning "the age at which one became a man." Pretty literal.
Manufacture means "to make by hand" in Latin and originally signified things that were created by craftsmen.
Once a verb, manure meant to hold or manage land or property. From the Latin manu operari, (manus "hand" + operari "to work, operate").
A match first was a wick of a candle or lamp.
Matrix is from the Latin for "breeding female." It was originally used to refer to the womb.
A milliner - a maker and seller of lady's hats - once referred to anyone from Milan, Italy.
Monochrome originally referred to differing shades of one color.
A munition was once a granted privilege or right. In the military sense, it first described a defending wall or fortification.

That's the first half of the list. I'm sure there are words you want to add so go to it....

Originally posted to The Way The Wind Blows on Sun May 31, 2009 at 05:10 PM PDT.

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