When the English clergyman Thomas Fuller used the word unfriended in a letter dating from 1659, we can be pretty sure he wasn’t talking about his Facebook page. Instead, Fuller used the word to mean something like “estranged” or “fallen out,” a straightforward literal meaning that has long since “fallen out” of the language.
It’s to be expected that the words we use will change and develop over time as they begin to be used in original and innovative new contexts. But in some instances, these developments can lead to words gaining new meanings entirely different from their original implications—and the 25 words listed here have done just that.
Alienate, like alien, is derived from the Latin word alienus, which was used to describe anything that was unfamiliar, unconnected, or foreign. And when alienate first appeared in English as a legal term in the mid-1400s, it meant to transfer ownership of some property over to someone else, so that it is now “foreign” or “unconnected” to you. It’s from here that the modern meaning of “estrangement” or “distance” eventually developed.
Ambidextrous literally means “Able to use the right and left hands equally well.” It certainly isn’t its earliest meaning, though: When it first began to be used in English in the mid-16th century, an ambidexter was someone who took bribes from both sides in a legal action, and as such, ambidextrous originally meant “duplicitous” or “two-faced.”
Bunny derives from bun—which was an old English word for a squirrel, not a rabbit.
The use of cheap to mean “low-cost” is a relatively recent invention that dates back about 500 years. That might not sound all that recent, but compare that to the fact that the earliest record of the word cheap in any context dates from the 9th century, when it originally meant something along the lines of simply “trade” or “bargaining” or “marketplace.” Likewise, to cheapen something originally meant to ask how much it costs.
Nowadays when we say we’re “down in the dumps,” we mean that we’re in a gloomy, low-spirited mood. But the original dump from which this derives was actually an old Tudor English word for an absent-minded daydream, or a dazed, puzzled state of mind, not a depressive one. In that sense, it probably has its roots in an earlier old Dutch word, domp, meaning “haze” or “mist.”
The –plode of explode is derived from the same root as applaud—it originally meant “to jeer a performer off a stage.”
The link between fantastic things and absolute fantasy was once much closer than it is today. Fantastic originally meant “existing only in the imagination,” or in other words “unreal” or “based on fantasy.” Because fantastic things like these would be so extraordinary or bizarre, eventually the word became attached more loosely to weird and fanciful, and ultimately impressive or wonderful things.
The root of fascinated is the Latin word fascinus, which referred to a magic charm or spell. As such, its original meaning was “bewitched” or “enchanted,” not just “interested” or “enthralled.”
Long before we started using do-re-mi, the first and lowest note of a musical scale was called ut. And the lowest of all the uts was gamma ut (named for the Greek letter gamma), which eventually simplified to gamut. As time went by, the term gamut came to refer collectively to all the notes of a musical scale, and then to the full range of a musical instrument, from where the modern sense of “the full extent” or “scope” of something eventually derived in the mid-1700s.
The word girl was originally gender neutral and could be used in same way we would use child or kid. Its meaning didn’t begin to become more specific until the 15th century, after the word boy—which originally meant “a male servant or assistant”—was adopted into English (possibly from French) and effectively stole half of the meaning of girl, leaving us with the opposite pair we have today.
Folk etymology claims the word handicap comes from injured soldiers returning home from war and, unable to work, being forced to beg on the streets with their caps in their hands. In fact, that’s completely untrue: Instead, handicap was originally an old form of trade or bartering, in which two trading parties would have their goods assessed by an impartial third person, who would check for any differences in value to ensure that both traded items were of equivalent price. If both traders agreed with his assessment, they would drop a small amount of cash into his upturned cap which he would get to keep as part of the deal; if they disagreed, then no trade would take place and he would get nothing. It was from this original notion of “assessing the relative value of something” that we then came to have handicap races, in which stronger participants would be deliberately impeded to ensure a fair race, in the mid 18th century, and it’s from there that the more general sense of a handicap as an impediment or hindrance eventually derived in the late 1800s.
A husband was originally a home-owner or a head of a household—and not necessarily a married one. At its root are words meaning “home” or “dwelling” (an etymological ancestor of house) and dweller or freeholder (an ancestor of bond). Wife, meanwhile, meant “woman” originally, a general meaning that still survives in words like housewife and midwife.
Jargon was originally a word for the chirping and chattering of birds—which is the sense by which it appears in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. And because the noises made by birds are unintelligible to us, it eventually came to be mean “senseless, incomprehensible language.”
Keen hasn’t always meant “willing” or “ardent”—it derives from an Old English word cene, meaning “brave,” “fierce,” or “warlike.”
Describing something as livid originally meant that it was a grey-blue color, like the color of slate. In this sense, it originally meant “bruised” or “discoloured” when it first began to be used in English in the early 1600s, and it wasn’t until the 1920s that it came to mean “furiously angry”—in the sense of all of the color draining from someone’s face.
Manage derives, via Italian, from the Latin word for hand, manus, and originally meant to physically “handle” something—and in particular, to control a horse.
Naughty is etymologically related to nought, and meant “to have nothing” when it first appeared in the language around 600 years ago. Soon afterward, it came to mean “to have no morals,” and, by extension, “wicked,” “depraved,” or “vicious,” before its meaning softened in the late Middle Ages. It was then that the modern meaning of “mischievous” or “disobedient” first began to appear.
Nervous originally meant “sinewy” or “muscly,” or by extension “powerful” or “vigorous.” Back in the 15th century, a nervous person would be one with bulging muscles and who appeared visibly strong. Before long, however, nervous came to refer to impulses and disorders that affected the nerves, and ultimately by the 1700s, excitable or anxious feelings or people.
Nice derives from a Latin word, nescius, meaning “ignorant” or “not knowing”—and that was its original meaning when it was first adopted into English from French around the turn of the 14th century. Over the years that followed, nice was knocked around the language picking up an impressively wide range of meanings along the way—including “wanton,” “ostentatious,” “punctilious,” “prim,” “hard to please,” “cultured,” “cowardly,” “lazy,” “pampered,” “shy,” “insubstantial,” and “dainty”—before it finally settled on its current meaning in the early 1700s.
No one knows where the word punk comes from, but its earliest meaning in English was as another name for a prostitute—the meaning by which it appears in Shakespeare’s Measure For Measure. Over the centuries, the word seems to have accrued a whole host of fairly unsavory connotations, until it first began to be used of a petty criminal or a criminal’s assistant sometime around 1900, and ultimately any disreputable person, an outcast, or an inexperienced person in the 1920s and '30s.
The word queen apparently started life as a general name for a woman or a wife, before its meaning specialized to “the wife of a king” in the middle of the Old English period. It has remained unchanged ever since.
Rival comes from the same etymological root as words like river and rivulet, and when it first appeared in English in the early 15th century was nothing more than another name for a shoreline or the riverbank. The modern sense of “competitor” or “opponent” is presumed to derive from fishermen competing over the best fishing waters—in fact, the Latin equivalent rivalis was historically used to describe someone who lived on the opposite bank of a river from you.
In Old English, speechless meant precisely that—permanently mute, or physically unable to speak. The figurative sense of “stunned into silence” emerged in the Middle English period, and is probably an invention of Geoffrey Chaucer.
To thrill originally meant “to piece a hole in something”—your nostrils, etymologically, are your “nose-thrills.” The modern meaning of “excite” or “affect” is a more recent figurative development dating from the 1500s (perhaps Shakespeare’s doing) that implies that something “thrilling” has the ability to affect someone very deeply.
Volatile comes from the Latin verb volare, meaning “to fly” (the same root as volleyball, incidentally) and first described any creature capable of flight, in particular water birds like ducks, geese, and waders. From this original meaning came the chemical meaning of volatile—originally “liable to disperse in fumes”—in the early 15th century, which eventually gave rise to the figurative meaning of “fickle” or “changeable” in the mid-1600s.
A version of this story ran in 2015; it has been updated for 2022.