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English Words That Really Mean Something Very Different Than What You Think They Mean
“That’s awful,” he said, grimacing at the sordid image spray painted on the bricks. “Really awful!”
Using the word ‘awful’ more than once, the character is emphasizing his point. But what does he really mean? Does him mean ‘awful’ as in ‘dreadful?’ Or ‘awful’ as in full of awe, full of wonder?
The current definition of the adjective ‘awful’ is 'something bad or unpleasant.' However, historically, ‘awful’ derives from ‘awe-ful’ or ‘full of awe’ like the word ‘awesome.’ With the stem, ‘aw’, and the suffix, ‘ful’, the word as one, ‘awful’, suggested something more positive, like ‘awe-inspiring’. That being said, the suffix, ‘ful’, having the quality of the stem, ‘aw’, gives the combined word, ‘awful’, the power of being ‘full’ of the stem’s quality of ‘aw’. Much like ‘fearful’, ‘frightful’, and other compound words that have a more negative suggestion. So, whilst ‘awful’ once suggested something full of awe, it also suggested something worthy of or commanding respect or even fear. This latter suggestion compounded the meaning of ‘awful’ into something negative, something terrible, something that caused dread. The once all-powerful, awe-inspiring word ‘awful’ morphed into an all-powerful, dreadful suggestion of anything and everything that is negative, something frightful, ugly, exceedingly bad.
The word ‘awesome’ appeared in the English language much later, hundreds of years later in fact than ‘awful’, sometime around the late sixteenth century. By this time, ‘awful’ had taken on the negative meaning, so ‘awesome’, another ‘awe-inspiring’ compound word, somehow retained its positive meaning of being amazing and great.
Another word that defies its original intent is the word ‘scoff’. It’s supposed to mean a mock or a jeer, something funny. However, this word really defies definition, being more clearly associated with the emotion this word evokes. ‘Scoff’ is supposed to identify with love or joy, but instead, it causes sadness, heartache, even anger. Scoffing actually devalues a person, even a relationship, and causes resentment and hostility. Scoffing is no laughing matter.
There are a lot of words in the English language that are now used to mean the opposite of their original definition. These words are contronyms or sometimes referred to as Janus words or auto-antonym. Simply put, a word that means the opposite or reverse of what may have been intended. It all depends on the context in which the word is used. Awful and scoff are contronyms. As is literally, which no longer means literally. At least, literally speaking. Just remember, language seldom, if ever, truly does what you think it should and the author must beware of the contradictory meanings that abound for each and every word in the dictionary.
Here are a few others to add to the list of contronyms:
- silly – this word actually derives from a Middle English word, ‘seely’ which means happy. What happened to ‘seely’? Once people started mispronouncing it and then actually spelling it, the word became ‘silly’ and it had a whole new meaning. Silly defined someone who was innocent, deserving of pity or sympathy, even naïve and unsophisticated. Now it means ignorant or foolish. All in the history of one ‘silly’ little word.
- egregious – This word evolves from the Latin word ‘ex grege’, meaning something or someone that rises above the flock. In other words, it meant exceptional or distinguished. At least, that’s what it meant when the word first appeared in the English language in the early 1500s. By the next century, however, its meaning had twisted to a deliberately ironic usage as a negative or bad adjective, like an egregious mistake. This is the meaning attached to the word to this day.
- terrific – in the late 1600s, the word ‘terrific’ could mean something frightening or terrifying. By the middle of the eighteenth century, the word transformed to mean something great or severe and by the end of the nineteenth century, it adopted its contemporary meaning: excellent.
- smart – late Old English had the word ‘smeart’ as meaning painful or stinging. The same meaning applies today when it’s used as a verb: ‘that smarts.’ The word developed quickly into the meaning often used today: someone who is quick-witted, has a sharp tongue, or even someone with a certain level of intelligence is considered ‘smart.’
- nice – This word derived from the Old French ‘nice’ which means foolish or weak. By the Middle Ages, it meant shy or reserved. It wasn’t until the late eighteenth century when shy and reserved personalities were deemed respectable qualities, that the word ‘nice’ took on a more positive meaning,
- bully – Believe it or not, this word actually once meant a good person or a darling. Now, we all know it means someone who mocks or harms others who might be seen as weaker.
- artificial – This word once meant artfully and skillfully constructed. Now it’s used to mean contrived or false.
- villain – This was once a trusted farmhand, villein. Now it means an evil person.
- harlot – How this one transformed its meaning is difficult to comprehend, but it actually originally meant a goofy, mischievous man. Now, as we all know, it means a promiscuous woman.
- resentment – Its original meaning is gratitude. Now it means indignation.
There are many more examples of English words that have totally altered their original meanings. Why does it matter? Well, perhaps it doesn’t and it’s merely an interesting tidbit of information. However, if we’re writing historical stories, we might want to consider using historically accurate words. When reading my grandmother’s journals written in the 1920s, I was shocked at her frequent use of the word ‘gay’ – “I had a gay time at the party.” Only a hundred years ago and look at how the meaning of the word ‘gay’ has changed. When using a word in a specific era, we, as authors, must keep in mind what the word means in that era and how it was used. That is, of course, if we wish to keep things historically accurate.
Written by Readers’ Favorite Reviewer Emily-Jane Hills Orford