51. 5 Words That Lost Their Original Meaning, Literally

Recently, there has been some massive outrage over the Merriam-Webster Dictionary team’s decision to allow “literally” to mean the same thing as “figuratively”. And I completely understand – as someone who takes the effort to distinguish between the two, and even to the extent of differentiating between “figuratively” and “metaphorically”, to realize that it was all for naught ticked me off considerably. I mean, I could have killed someone.


But really guys, relax. Half the people on my facebook friends list are running around, spouting statements like, “Congratulations you guys, we have killed the English language,” or “R.I.P. English”. The other half are either blissfully unaware, or are wondering what on earth is the fuss about. Seriously though, cut the melodrama! If you’re going to chew it out because one word has lost its original meaning, check out this list of 5 words that have lost theirs over the years:

1. Chill

chill [noun]: a moderate but penetrating coldness; a sensation of coldness, often accompanied by shivering and pallor of the skin; a checking or dampening of enthusiasm, spirit, or joy; a sudden numbing fear or dread.

This is a nice little word – one syllabus, simple, easy to spell. It even has its roots in Old English! But sometime in the 1980s, it started to also mean “relax”, a slang that sustained to this day. A little bit before that, in the 1970s, “chill” could also mean to lose interest, or enthusiasm in something. Even before that, as early as the 1920s, it could mean to quash, or to kill.

1920s man: Why, when I get my hands on that bugger, I will chill him.
1920s friend: Congratulations, chap. You just killed the English language.

So remember: the next time you say, “Hey, I’m just going to head down to the coffee shop to chill for a bit”, you are killing the language as much as the other guy who is using “literally” as emphasis to his statement.

2. Gay

gay [adjective]: of, relating to, or having a sexual orientation to persons of the same sex; showing or characterized by cheerfulness and lighthearted excitement; merry; bright or lively, especially in color; given to social pleasures; dissolute; licentious.

Oh, you know this one. You know this one very well. Anyone with a decent education knows how the word had originally meant merriment or lightheartedness, derived from a word from Old French. And then suddenly, at the turn of the 20th century, the word started to become associated with homosexuals – how? Why? Maybe a language scholar can tell us, but try going out there and insist on using this word to describe your mood. Go on, I’ll wait.

1900s man: Look at that fellow over there, with his bright pink coat! Quite gay, if you know what I mean. Heh heh.
1900s friend: You are a disgrace to the English-speaking community. We are no longer friends.

Oh, are you back from our social experiment? I hope we’re all learning something today.

3. Lame

lame [adjective]: disabled so that movement, especially walking, is difficult or impossible; marked by pain or rigidness; weak and ineffectual; unsatisfactory.

Now, when was the last time you used this word to refer to a physical disability? (Except you Christian ministers, you’re exempt). The word in Old English that this word originated from meant either crushed, or fragile, which is close enough – but when did it become an adjective for jokes, or for unconvincing excuses? I have no idea on this one – maybe you guys can find out.

It appears that it can also mean a thin metal plate, referring to the kind that’s used to make medieval armor. I could make a bad joke here, but I think I’ll keep it to myself.

4. Bemused

bemused [adjective]: to be bewildered; confused; to be engrossed in thought.

Okay, I admit: I have been found guilty of misusing this word. But who can be blamed? It sounds so much like “amused”, and so I thought that it meant something close to it – but apparently, this word means to completely dazzle, and not in the good way that a well-fitting dress does.

Something to keep in mind when you describe someone as having “a bemused expression”.

5. Disinterested

disinterested [adjective]: free of bias and self-interest; impartial; not interested; indifferent.

Apparently, the judge should be disinterested, but not uninterested. That’s the “correct” way of using the word – to mean that someone is unbiased. This one is interesting because people have been using it wrong as early as the 17th century, and as recent as 2001, The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language still has not accepted the word to mean “uninterested”.

2000s man: I did my best in the presentation, but my boss was completely disinterested in it, and even walked out halfway!
2000s friend: Wow. 400 years, and we still haven’t learned, huh? The English language is dying a slow death.

So there you have it – 5 words that shows that even language cannot stand against the eroding effects of time. Before you freak out the next time someone misuses “literally”, reflect upon all the times you have misused “chill”, “gay”, “lame”, “bemused”, or “disinterested”, and then quietly endure the error.

You’ve deserved it, after all.


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