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Lost words

01:00 Fri 11th Jan 2002 |

As languages evolve so the meanings of words change, and many common or everyday modern words may well have started out with meanings far removed from their present ones. While there are those pedants who enjoy keeping an eye on the peregrination of the definitions of words and will attempt to haul the prodigals home again, even they, eventually, have to accept that meanings mutate.

Q. Any examples

A. Where to start is the problem. But here are a few:


Then: Reduce to nine tenths of a previous number

Now: Destroy completely

When a Roman legion had displayed cowardice in battle then the punishment would be 'decimation'. This required one in every ten men, chosen by lot, to be executed.

Which brings us on to legion itself

Then: One thousand, the number of soldiers in a Roman regiment

Now: A huge, uncountable number

'My name is Legion: for we are many,' said the 'unclean' spirits possessing the 'Gerasene demoniac' in the Gospel of St Mark. After Jesus exorcised the man the spirits occupied a herd of 2,000 or so pigs, which subsequently charged into the river and drowned. This episode popularised the use of the word as meaning a large, though not exact, number.

Talking of large numbers, how about billion

Then: A million million - and this was, until very recently, the official, though not the popular, the meaning in the UK

Now: A thousand million, the US version and now the international standard

Nice has had many definitions over the centuries

Then: Its meaning has ranged from foolish, wanton, delicate, effeminate, strange, rare, extraordinary, hard to please, trivial, full of risk and critical to scrupulous, precise, refined, sensitive, slender, carefully accurate and requiring tact

Now: Pleasant

And an obvious one, though it doesn't cause as much confusion among the older members of the population as it once did: gay

Then: Happy and carefree

Now: Homosexual

How about bastard

Then: It used to be used to define the relationship between aristocratic family members. So, as William the Conqueror's parents were not married, he was, quite accurately, known as 'William the Bastard', which was a statement of simple genealogical fact

Now: You b******!

Q. How about words which have shifted in a way that's related to the original meaning

A. Many have done just that. The original change in meaning with such words may have come about simply through ignorance: the speaker really thought that's what the word meant, and it caught on.

Q. So



Then: To catch up with

Now: To pass


Then: At once

Now: In a while


Then: For a moment

Now: In a moment

If you can think of any other words which have changed their meanings, particularly recent ones, let the answerbank know

For more on Phrases & Sayings click here

By Simon Smith

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