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Jun 10, 2019

Some English Words Whose Meaning Has Changed or Is Undergoing Change

Some English Words Whose Meaning Has Changed or Is Undergoing Change

Many people who feel that the English language has been dumbed down blame this on America. Some say that the Americans are to blame for the many slang words and colloquialisms that we now have. Admittedly, we do tend to borrow a lot of words from American English, and the globalization of communication has increased this trend. America is a productive and inventive country, and this productivity and inventiveness have been extended to its language. To some extent, British English has been affected by this. There have been many more changes in the meaning throughout the centuries and they are still occurring. Shall we buckle down to discuss a few?

The verb ‘decimate’ literally means to kill or destroy one in ten of a set of people. It is derived from a Latin word meaning 'to kill one in ten of a unit of soldiers who took part in a mutiny'. The practice was doubtless intended to act as a warning to the other nine units.

Nowadays there is not much call for a word meaning 'to kill one in ten people' and the word had moved on. It came to mean 'to kill a large proportion of', as in:

The disease decimated the rabbit population of the island.

One tenth is not a huge proportion of a whole and so possibly there was a mix-up somewhere between one tenth being killed and one tenth surviving.

The word moved on even further and came to mean 'to inflict a great deal of damage on something or to destroy a large number or part of', as in:

The event attracted a lot of adverse publicity to the area and decimated the tourist industry.

There was a great deal of opposition to the changes in meaning of DECIMATE. It seems that people did not want to let go of its connection with ten. It is advisable not to mention a specific amount when you are using the word.

2. GAY
Many people, older or not, disliked the widespread introduction of the 'homosexual' meaning of the English adjective GAY. The word had been used in this meaning in a very limited way since the 1930s, but it did not reach a wider audience until the late 1960s. Now, it has become such an established meaning of GAY in the English-speaking world that it has virtually edged out the original use of ‘merry or light-hearted’.

When the 'homosexual' meaning first came into widespread use, quite a lot of people mourned the passing of GAY's original happy meaning. However, the word ‘homosexual’ was more in need of its services than the word ‘merry’ was. 

Homosexuality is still a controversial subject in many parts of the world where it is forbidden and punishable by law, but the English language moves with the times and people are happy to use this adjective which has the advantage of being neutral and nonjudgmental.

While there are quite a few synonyms for GAY in its original sense, there are not very many for the 'homosexual' meaning. Words such as bent and queer are intended to be offensive. Note that the abstract noun from GAY in its homosexual sense is gayness, while the abstract noun from GAY in its merry, light-hearted sense is gaiety.

Data is the plural form of the word datum, but the singular form datum is rarely used now. As a plural noun, data was formerly always used with a plural verb, as in:

The data released by the bank were carefully studied by financial journalists.

In modern usage, data is often accompanied by a singular verb, as in:

The data on which the research was based has been found to be inaccurate.

Formerly, data was used mainly in a scientific or technical context, but it is now frequently used with reference to computer information, and so is in more general use. Data is the regular plural form of the singular Latin noun datum, but, since Latin is no longer taught in many British Schools, this fact is not now very well-known. Many people simply did not know why data should be considered plural, and so its singular form datum is fading from use.

Nauseous is another word that appears to be undergoing a change, but it is not exactly a word in everyday use and the change may not yet be very obvious. The adjective ‘nauseous’, in British English, traditionally means ‘nauseating’ or ‘causing nausea’. In other words, it is a formal way of saying something makes you feel sick or want to vomit, as in:

There was a nauseous smell of rotten meat coming from the fridge.

In American English, nauseous means ‘nauseated’ or ‘feeling sick’ or ‘about to vomit’, as in:

Going on a boat trip always makes me feel nauseous, even when the sea is calm.

The British English equivalent of American English nauseous is ‘nauseated’, but users of British English have begun to adopt the American usage, as in:

She says that she felt nauseous for most of her pregnancy.

It looks as though a change is affecting these two adjectives which are derived from the word history. The adjectives are historic and historical, and traditionally they have different meanings.

Strictly speaking, historic refers to an event that is important enough or memorable enough to be recorded in history, as in:

The Battle of Waterloo was a historic victory for the British.

It is now often used exaggeratedly of an event, often a sporting event, that is not nearly as important as that description suggests, as in:

The cup final ended in a historic victory for the English team.

According to traditional usage, historical simply refers to something that took place in the past or means ‘based on the study of history’, as in:

Most of the country's historical records are held in the national archive.

Probably because these words sound so alike and are so frequently confused, the distinction between them is beginning to disappear. This is bound to arouse some protest.

Aggravate is another word with a long-established meaning that has acquired another meaning. This still arouses protest from people who consider themselves language purists and guardians of the language. They consider that the only proper meaning of aggravate is to make worse, as in:

His headache was aggravated by the loud music playing next door.

This meaning is admittedly the older, having come into being in the late 16th century. However, the meaning ‘to irritate or annoy’, as in ‘Those children have been aggravating the neighbours all day with their noisy games’, is not far behind in terms of age. It first made an appearance in the early 17th century. It is this meaning that so irritates (we had better not say 'aggravates') some users, often older users.

Changes in the language are frequently met with great opposition, at least until people get used to them, or until the loudest of the objectors are no longer with us. The opposition to the introduction of hopefully was particularly forceful. I am talking, of course, about hopefully in the sense of ‘it is to be hoped that’, as in ‘Hopefully, we'll get there in time for dinner.’ rather than ‘with hope’, as in ‘We waited hopefully for their arrival until it became clear that they were not coming.’

Even now, people still grumble about it, although hopefully, in its later sense, is now regarded as quite acceptable, except, perhaps, in the most formal of contexts. The arguments against the acceptance of hopefully in its more recent meaning were not really convincing. Much was made of the possibility of ambiguity occurring, especially when the adverb is placed immediately before the verb, as in:

They will hopefully wait for us although we're going to be a bit late.

However, the hopefully in the sentence above is much more likely to mean ‘it is to be hoped that’ and, if there are genuine possibilities of ambiguity, you can change its position to the beginning of the sentence.

Signs of change are particularly likely to go unspotted for a while where the word affected is not very commonly used. Fortuitous is such a word. Originally, and in line with its derivation, fortuitous meant happening by chance or accidental, as in:

She bumped into her old friend in a completely fortuitous meeting. They hadn't seen each other since they were at school together.

Because the words sound quite similar, 'fortuitous began to become confused with fortunate, as in:

Meeting her father's old friend was fortuitous for her because he offered her a job in his company.

And in time, fortuitous began to be used to describe an event that was not only accidental but also lucky.

Until very recently, disinterested meant the same as impartial or unbiasedIt was often confused with uninterested, meaning ‘not having any interest in something’, and now it has come to share this meaning.

This has been a gradual change and many young people are not aware that the distinction between the meanings of the two words ever existed.

This change has not been universally welcomed by any means. Many people, especially older people, still protest about it and claim that changes like this are spoiling what they see as the purity of the English Language. This is often now referred to as 'a dumbing down' of the language.

In fact, this particular example of a language change is actually a reversion to the previous state of affairs. According to historical dictionaries from the 17th century, DISINTERESTED could mean the same as UNINTERESTED.

Something happened to the word ‘disc’. When this was applied to computers in British English, it became ‘disk‘, as in hard disk, in line with the American spelling.

Other meanings retained the disc spelling in British English, but that is beginning to change as people get confused. The computer disk is the one we are most likely to come across in the course of our daily routine, so we have become used to this spelling.

We now tend to use it outside the world of computers. For example, it is becoming quite usual for people to write:

I have a slipped disk.

These words are liable to cause confusion because of the influence of American English. In British English, the correct spelling is disc, as in:

He is suffering from a slipped disc, and his back is very sore.

But when the word is associated with computers, it becomes disk, as in disk drive. In American English, the word is generally spelt disk whatever the meaning. Many British English users are beginning to follow suit.

Media is the plural form of medium when this refers to a means of transmitting information, as in:

i. Television is certainly a useful educational medium for children.

ii. The most popular forms of news media were found to be radio and television.

The word ‘media’ is frequently found in the expression the media, which is used to refer to the means of mass communication, i.e. newspapersradio and television.

The use of media as a singular noun is disliked by some people, but this use is becoming increasingly common, as in:

The media is often blamed for making young people body-conscious.

Many people now do not know that media is the plural form of the Latin word medium, and see no reason why it should not be used in the singular.

The mention of queer raises an interesting aspect of language and, indeed, an interesting aspect of people. Queer had the original meaning of odd or improper. The phrase ‘on queer street’ meant in financial difficulties.

In the early 20th century, queer came to be used as an informal, usually derogatory term for homosexual, but it is now used by some gay people to describe themselves. They are reclaiming and applying to themselves a word that their critics intended to be insulting. This is quite funny.

13. SEXY
SEXY was originally an informal word meaning 'causing, or intended to cause, desire', as in:
She bought a sexy new dress.

It then went on to acquire an additional meaning that is not related to sex. This meaning is 'interesting, attractive or exciting', often because of being new or fashionable, as in:

i. We are about to launch a sexy new range of kitchen equipment.

ii. They're planning to pull down the old building and build what they call a sexy new state-of-the-art office block.

© Joseph Baidoo
Joseph Baidoo is a Ghanaian and is popularly known on social media as Misty Joe.


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