So wrong they are literally all write…
WHEN it comes to expressing ourselves, the world has been getting it wrong for hundreds of years… literally.
The word “literally” means “in a literal way or sense” but, to the fury of language purists, many people now use it simply to stress a point.
But our misuse has become so common the Oxford English Dictionary has altered its definition to say it can be “used for emphasis rather than being actually true, such as, ‘We were literally killing ourselves laughing’.”
Senior OED editor Fiona McPherson said: “Our job is to describe the language people are using. Words have changed their meaning ever since the first word was uttered. Meat used to mean all food, but now its sense has narrowed.” So which other words have we got wrong for so long they are now right?
We use the word to mean “give up completely”, like abandoning hope, abandoning a baby or surrendering ourselves to emotion. But in 14th century Middle English it meant “to subjugate or subdue” someone or something – coming from the French phrase “mettre a bandon” meaning “to give up to a public ban”.
In Roman times addicts were broke folk given as slaves to the people they owed money to. It comes from the Latin addictus, which meant “a debtor awarded as a slave to his creditor”.
In the 1600s it was used in the sense of giving yourself to someone or some practice. Only in the early 1900s did it become associated with dependency on morphine and later other drugs.
Far from Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie’s highly charged characters in 2005 action flick Mr and Mrs Smith, it seems “assassin” is the Arabic word for “hashish eater” – because warriors used to get doped up.
At the time of the Crusades, fanatics were sent by their sheikh to murder Christian leaders. An explanation from 1860 says: “The assassins, before they attacked an enemy, would intoxicate themselves with a powder made of hemp leaves, out of which they prepared an inebriating electuary, called hashish.”
In the 1300s it originally meant “inspiring wonder” and was a short version of “full of awe”. But now the word has purely negative connotations.
From “bambino”, the Italian word for “little child”, it once meant “fellow, chap or one of the boys” in theatrical circles. By the 1900s it had come to mean a “stupid, inconsequential man or contemptible person”.
In 1920s America through the pages of Variety magazine, it meant an immoral woman or “floozie”. Then it reappeared in the 1980s during US political scandals, with other versions such as “bimbette” and a male form “himbo” – taking it full circle.
It may now be the way the BBC spreads the news, but in 1767 “broadcast” meant sowing seeds with a sweeping movement of the hand or a “broad cast”. Its media use began with radio in 1922.
Referring to someone as a bully in the 16th century was like calling them “darling” or “sweetheart” – probably from the Dutch word “boel”, meaning lover or brother. But the meaning deteriorated in the 17th century through “fine fellow” and “blusterer”, to “harasser of the weak”.
However, an American slang term of the 1860s, “bully for you”, gave the word a more positive sense again.
Cute was a shortened form of acute, meaning “keenly perceptive and shrewd” in the 1730s. But by the 1830s it was part of American student slang, meaning “pretty, charming and dainty”. And, bizarrely, the original sense of “dainty” was “worthy and substantial”.
We use the term to mean “totally destroy” but the original definition was “to kill one in 10”.
The brutal practice was used by the Roman army in the fifth century BC as a way to inspire fear and loyalty.
Lots were drawn and one out of every 10 soldiers would be killed by their own comrades. If one member of a squad acted up, anybody could pay the ultimate price.
If you’re thinking of telling your beloved how fantastic they look today, think again. Unless, that is, they look like a Hobbit or an Avatar (whatever floats your boat).
The 14th century meaning is “existing only in imagination”, from the old French term “fantastique”. It was not until 1938 that the word was first used to mean “wonderful or marvellous”.
Garble originally meant to sort something out – not to mess it up. It comes from a 15th century Anglo-French word “garbeler”, meaning “to sift” and the Arabic “gharbala” which meant sifting and selecting spices.
It changed in the 1680s and was instead used to describe mixed up, confused or distorted language.
Back in the 13th century the word meant “light-hearted” or “joyous” and a century later it meant “bright and showy”.
But in the 1630s it acquired connotations of immorality with the term “Gay woman” meaning prostitute or “gay house” a brothel. It was first used to refer to homosexuality in the 1930s.
The Old German words “hus” and “bunda” mean “house” and “owner”. “Husband” originally had nothing to do with marital status at all, except that home ownership made husbands extremely desirable marriage partners in the 13th century.
The slang shortening it to “hubby” was first used in the 1680s.
It went on to mean “womb or source”. Eventually in 1555 it was adapted to mean “a place where something is developed”.
In the 1400s a nervous person was actually “sinewy and vigorous” – as the Latin word nervus applied to both sinews and nerves. By 1665 nerves were better understood and by 1734 the term meant “suffering a disorder of the nervous system”.
By 1740 it meant “restless, agitated, lacking nerve” and it then became a widespread euphemism for mental illness – forcing the medical community to coin “neurological” to replace it in the older sense. “Nervous wreck” was first used in 1899.
Derived from the Latin nescius meaning “ignorant”, the word began life in the 14th century as a term for “foolish” or “silly”.
It soon embraced bad qualities, such as wantonness, extravagance, cowardice and sloth.
In the Middle Ages it took on the more neutral attributes of shyness and reserve. Society’s admiration of such qualities in the 18th century brought on the more positively charged meanings of “nice” we know today.