Six Shapeshifters

The grouch who is none too pleased to be ambushed by an army of surprise birthday partiers would be gratified to learn that, until the early 1600s, surprise was a military term that meant to attack or assail without warning. Not surprisingly, surprise is hardly the only word to change meanings over time. Following are five more examples, all picked from the ether but indicative of the natural shifts in language over the centuries.

To the American colonists, prestige was a conjuring trick, illusion, or deception (the first sense lives on in prestidigitator: one who practices sleight of hand or magic). Elsewhere, the word hectic — according to the Oxford English Dictionary, “applied to that kind of fever which accompanies consumption [tuberculosis] or other wasting diseases, and is attended by flushed cheeks and hot dry skin”; today, however, it is more synonymous with frenzied, frantic, or chaotic. Then there’s the innocent little adjective nice, whose Middle English meaning gravitated from foolish, stupid, or senseless to wanton, lascivious, or lazy. Nice later settled into one variation or another of precision, exactitude, or refinement, and the modern sense of the word — agreeable or delightful — didn’t render these three meanings obsolete until the late nineteenth century.*

More than a few common words took a hard turn toward the pejorative. For instance, silly went from describing anyone deserving of pity or compassion to meaning weak or frail; speakers and writers later applied it to the poor… and finally to the foolish. But perhaps no adjective took a harder fall than lewd. In Old English it meant lay (non-clergy); in Middle English, unlearned, unlettered, or untaught; and in Modern English, lascivious and unchaste — or, to today’s ear, pornographic, nasty, smutty, or kinky. Cue the interjection My word!

*For more on this rollercoaster of a word, see All About “Nice.”

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