LANGUAGE TIME MACHINE

You Won't Believe What These 10 Words Meant in The Past


Published on July 1, 2024


Credit: Glen Carrie

We all know something for sure: change is inevitable. Not only do people, landscapes, and habits change, but words and their definitions also change**.** What if we told you that "girl" once meant "boy" too? That's right, some of the words you might use every day have had completely different meanings in the past! Words like "girl," "villain," "garbage," and "cheater" are just a few examples of terms with surprising histories and evolving identities.

If you're curious, join us as we explore the fascinating evolution of these 10 English terms that used to have different meanings than they do today!

1

Silly

Credit: Katrina Berban

Some say that a little silliness might actually be linked to happiness; what do you think? Well, the origin of the word " silly " seems to support this idea.

This funny word, often used affectionately or as a joke to those we love, has an interesting history. Sources suggest that " silly " originally comes from the Old English sǣlig , which meant "happy" or "blessed." Over time, its meaning gradually shifted towards " innocence ," possibly due to an association with a common childhood trait.

But the evolution of its meaning didn't stop there. By the Middle Ages , "silly" had transitioned from " innocence " to " harmlessness ," then to " simplicity ," and eventually to " foolishness ." Quite a journey for a single word!

Credit: Toa Heftiba

2

Cheater

Whether you've been caught cheating or you've stumbled upon a cheater , this word has caused chaos - in one way or another - in almost everyone's life. But things were quite different a few centuries ago.

In the 14th century , the Old French term escheater referred to a specific job: the person responsible for managing the King's escheats. This role became crucial when the King had no heirs, as the escheater would oversee the transfer of property and goods . Due to the nature of this task, people often suspected the escheater's integrity .

Later shortened to "cheater," the word evolved with the centuries, and the meaning was metaphorically extended to label anyone dishonest or deceitful. But here's an interesting twist: the " infidelity " undertones we now link with the term were not introduced until the 20th century!

3

Bully

Credit: Jeffrey Hamilton

What do you call your loved one? "Honey," "darling," "sweetheart"? What about " bully "? If that last option surprises you, just wait until you hear that term's history!

It is believed that "bully" originated from the Dutch boel , meaning "lover" or "brother." Back in the 16th century , it was an endearing term in English , similar to "sweetheart" or "fine fellow." However, as the century drew to a close, its sense had changed to a more negative one.

Some sources suggest that this shift in meaning may have stemmed from the term "bully-ruffian," which designated a protector or bodyguard who often used force or threats . This association gradually transformed "bully" into a term connoting someone who harasses or intimidates others, leading to its modern negative meaning.

4

Pretty

Credit: Vinicius Wiesehofer

Although some people have tried to separate beauty from intellect , the word " pretty " has brought these two qualities together throughout its evolution.

Many sources trace the origins of this widely used term to the late Old English word prættig , associated with qualities like cunning and cleverness . By the 15th century , "pretty" had come to mean "clever" or "skillful" and used to define both people and meticulously crafted objects.

By the 16th century , "pretty" had begun to resemble its modern meaning, as it was used to represent charming women and children. Its current link to physical beauty was already strong by the 18th century.

5

Awful

Credit: Nik

Language evolution can be quite a spectacle, with some changes being more drastic and noticeable than others.

That is the case with " awful ." This word's journey began with the Old English egefull , a mix of "ege" (meaning "dread" or "fear") and "full." Originally, it described things that inspired both fear and awe or reverence. Just imagine saying "awful" when you're in the presence of something truly awe-inspiring!

During the Middle Ages , the term was linked with the dread of divine punishment, which dominated the beliefs of the time. Starting to solidify in the 18th century, the negative connotation stuck, though its meaning shifted over the years. By the 19th century , the word was already associated with unpleasantness , much like we use it today.

6

Garbage

Credit: Pawel Czerwinski

Despite being a common and ordinary word, " garbage " has a rich history you may not have heard about. Its origins are not entirely clear, but it is believed to come from the Anglo-French word garbage , which referred to the waste parts of poultry . While the word has always had some relation to waste , its original meaning was much more specific (and, let's face it, a bit more gross). First recorded in the 15th century, Middle English _garbage (_or gabage) referred to the discarded parts of any type of animal left over after food preparation.

Over time, its definition broadened . By the 16th century , the word encompassed other kinds of kitchen residues . Finally, by the 19th century , "garbage" was already being used to designate any type of household waste , whether from food preparation or not.

7

Girl

Credit: Simon Maage

Would you believe us if we told you that, in the past, "girl" could mean "boy" too? Yes, it's true! While it might feel like "Hey, girl!" has been around forever, the word has a fascinating history with a twist you probably didn't see coming.

It likely originated from the Anglo-Saxon word gerle (also girle or gurle ). Back in the 1200s to 1330s, "girl" was used to refer to any child or very young person, regardless of gender. However, it wasn't until the late 14th century that "girl" started to become more specifically associated with female children.

By the 15th century , the term "girl" had started to include young adult women, particularly those who were unmarried. As usually happens with language, this evolution has continued to the present day.

8

Flirt

Credit: Edward Cisneros

If you're hoping to spark someone's interest, here's a fun fact that can add an exciting touch to your flirting game: the word "flirt" has been around longer than you might think.

Its roots can be traced back to the Old French fleureter , which meant "to say sweet nonsense" or " to touch something in passing ." In the 16th century , the English "flirt" was used to mean "to throw with a sudden movement " or "to move in short and quick flights." Both the Old French and 16th-century English meanings suggest something done quickly and subtly, much like throwing a playful joke at the person you like.

By the 18th century, "flirt" was used to describe a person who behaves in a playful way towards others , already very close to the present meaning.

9

Villain

Credit: Patrick Collins

It's true that bad guys inhabit both the fictional and real worlds, but what could villains and farmers have in common?

Believe it or not, "villain" has roots in the Latin word villanus , which referred to a villager or farm worker . This connection derives from the Latin villam , meaning farm. In the Middle Ages , the term evolved under French influence into vilain , specifically denoting those who worked the land.

Like many words, this was not immune to the influence of economic and social factors. The economically dominant class started using the term in a certain pejorative sense , associating it with what they perceived as less refined manners. Over time, this pejorative sense of the word intensified, and by the Renaissance , "villain" had evolved to denote "bad behavior," regardless of the person's class or occupation. This gradual shift culminated in the meaning we recognize today, synonymous with the iconic Joker or the dreaded Cruella de Vil!

10

Secretary

Credit: Jean-Louis Paulin

Today, the role of a secretary often involves handling busy schedules, managing paperwork, and interacting with employees and clients. However, its historical roots indicate a more literal significance.

" Secretary " originates from the Latin secretarius , meaning " confidant ." Thus, in ancient Rome, a secretarius was someone tasked with keeping secrets or handling confidential information, a role that also resonates with the duties of modern secretaries!

By the Middle Ages , the term "secretary" in English had already evolved to refer to someone concerned with managing records or correspondence . However, it wasn't until the 18th century that its definition expanded to encompass different types of administrative work.


NATURE’S GREATEST COMEBACKS

10 Animals That Recovered From The Brink Of Extinction


Published on July 1, 2024


Credit: Sid Balachandran

Life always seems to find a way, even against what looks like insurmountable odds. And in a world where the specter of extinction looms large for many species, these tales of resilience and recovery are truly heartwarming.

Join us to meet 10 animals that have defied the odds, bouncing back from the brink of extinction to thrive once again.

1

American Bison

Credit: Jon Sailer

The American Bison, once teetering on the edge of extinction with only a few hundred individuals remaining, has made a remarkable recovery. Through concerted conservation efforts, populations have rebounded to over 500,000 today. Bison now roam freely again across national parks and private reserves, symbolizing a fortunate success story of collaborative conservation initiatives.

2

California Condor

Credit: Kacie Long

Declared officially extinct in the wild in 1987 - with only 22 individuals left - due to a mix of habitat loss and lead poisoning from ammunition, the California Condor faced imminent extinction. Though the conditions for their long-term survival are still to be addressed, captive breeding programs and rigorous conservation measures helped raise their numbers to over 500 birds.

3

Humpback Whale

Credit: Thomas Kelley

In the mid-twentieth century, humpback whales were hunted to the brink of extinction for their blubber, then used to make a valuable type of oil. Fearing that the species would soon disappear if the practice continued unregulated, a number of international bans on commercial whaling were imposed, and this led to a remarkable recovery. From just a few thousand individuals in the 1960s, their population has rebounded to over 135,000 today. Conservation efforts continue to focus on mitigating threats such as entanglement in fishing gear and habitat degradation.

4

Giant Panda

Credit: Elena Loshina

The iconic giant panda, synonymous with conservation efforts worldwide, has also experienced a dramatic recovery from the brink of extinction. Thanks to extensive captive breeding programs and habitat conservation measures, in 2016, the species was reclassified from "endangered" to "vulnerable." Despite this improvement, the species' survival continues to be threatened by habitat loss and climate change.

5

Black-footed Ferret

Credit: Colorado Front Range National Wildlife Refuge Complex, CC BY 4.0

Once hunted for its fur, the black-footed ferret was thought to be almost extinct in the late 70s, with some surviving populations discovered in later years. A 30-year-long recovery program through captive breeding and reintroduction into its native range has helped re-establish populations across the western United States. But the cute mustelid species is not yet out of danger, and it is still considered endangered by the International Union for Conservation of Nature.

6

Peregrine Falcon

Credit: Carlos Delgado, CC BY-SA 4.0

The fastest animal alive, reaching speeds over 200 mph, the majestic peregrine falcon was almost annihilated by widespread usage of the pesticide DDT during the 60s, becoming an endangered species over much of its native range. Since the ban on the toxic insecticide, the species has staged an impressive recovery. Their population has rebounded across North America, with successful reintroduction efforts in urban areas as well.

7

Southern White Rhino

Credit: Geraldine Dukes

The southern white rhinoceros was almost driven to extinction during the 19th century, mainly due to sport hunting and land clearing for crops and cattle. Reduced to a population of 20 to 50 animals, the species has miraculously recovered in recent years. Official conservation efforts, including anti-poaching measures and community-based conservation initiatives, have helped their population rebound to over 18,000 individuals in the wild.

8

Whooping Crane

Credit: Josie Weiss

A species believed to have been naturally rare, the whooping crane was pushed to the cusp of extinction due to overhunting. Their estimated pre-European contact population of around 10,000 birds was reduced to just 15 individuals by the 1940s. Fortunately, intensive conservation efforts have managed to restore their population to over 800 cranes today.

9

Mauritius Kestrel

Credit: Josh Noseworthy, CC BY 2.0

The Mauritius kestrel, a species endemic to the forests of the island country of Mauritius, was once the world's rarest bird, with only a handful of individuals remaining. Indiscriminate use of pesticides and the introduction of invasive species like cats and mongooses pushed the Mauritius Kestrel to the very edge, reaching an incredible all-time low of only 4 individuals in 1974. Against all odds, conservation efforts managed to save the dying species, raising its population to several hundred individuals today.

10

Bald Eagle

Credit: Alexas_Fotos

Not even the mighty Bald Eagle - an American symbol of strength and resilience - is safe from environmental damage, and during the first half of the 20th century, its population was severely reduced by a variety of factors like illegal shooting, pesticides, and habitat loss. Luckily, a number of protection efforts allowed the eagles to successfully rebound and repopulate their native ranges across the country.

Looking for an extra scoop of literary fun?

Learn more with our Word of the day

quibble

/ˈkwɪb(ə)l/