What English Vocabulary Words Have Changed in Meaning?

The English language has been evolving for hundreds of years. New words have been added, and old words have gone out of use. Some words, while still sometimes spelled and even pronounced the same way from the beginning, have changed so much in meaning that the English-speakers of three hundred years ago might find it hard to understand a modern English speaker. A good example of this is the word peculiar. The word comes from the Latin peculium, meaning “private property,” and originally was an adjective that defined something as specific to one person, singular, unique. However, the more common definition of the word these days is “odd, unusual.” Singular and unusual are synonyms, so in this way the word hasn’t really changed in its basic meaning, but the difference is very noticeable when the word is used in context.

Example 1: Let every creature rise and bring peculiar honors to our King.

Example 2: The wearing of ornamental rings that are so tall they stretch the neck is a custom peculiar to the Kayan Lahwi women of northern Thailand and Burma.

Example 3: You look very peculiar wearing those cowboy boots with a bathing suit.

As you can see, in the first example (taken from the text of a hymn written by Isaac Watts in the early 1700s), the meaning is definitely “original, specific to one creature.” Watts is not encouraging every creature to bring weird gifts, but rather ones that only they can produce or create. In the second example, using a slightly later usage of the word, the meaning is still “specific or unique to” but with the overtone of “out-of-the-ordinary, unusual.” And in the most modern usage, as seen in the third example, the speaker is definitely stating that they think their friend’s appearance is bizarre.

Here are some other words that have changed meaning over time:

bead
The word bead comes originally from the Old German bitte, meaning “to ask, to pray” and the word originally referred to the rosary beads that helped people to remember their prayers. “To tell one’s beads” is an old expression meaning “to pray.”

tell
As noted above, “telling” used to mean “counting” – now it means “relate, recount (a story).”

artifice
With the Latin roots ars (“art”) and facere (“to do”) you’d imagine that this word means “to create art.” Indeed, when the word first was coined in the 14th century, it was a complimentary term, referring to a person’s skill. These days, however, we use the word to mean a trick or a sly move, something artificial (which also used to be a complement, meaning “done with skill”) designed to fool people.

shrewd
In the 14th century, a shrewd person was someone who was wicked, cruel, and evil. The word has a much more positive spin today; to be shrewd means to be clever and resourceful, able to achieve things by the use of skill or cunning.

Increase your knowledge of English vocabulary, and you’ll have the resources to accomplish anything!