by James Hunt
If you're the sort of person who gets bent out of shape over the misuse of words like less and fewer, if you hate that literally no longer means literally, and if you could stand to care less about people saying they could care less, then we've got bad news for you: Language rarely does what you think it should. Even the most basic of words can substantially change their meanings over time. To prove it, here are seven words that used to mean something, and now mean exactly the opposite.
First documented circa 1600 as part of Early Modern English, the original meaning of awesome is hardly obscured: something which inspires or is full of awe. But when it was coined it referred to awe as in terror, rather than the modern form, "amazement." Of course, given the frequency with which it turns up in modern conversation, maybe it's not quite the superlative it once was.
In Middle English, the word seely meant happy. But by the time people were pronouncing (and spelling) it as silly, it had come to mean someone innocent or deserving of pity or sympathy. From there it came to mean naive and unsophisticated, before arriving at its modern usage of ignorant or foolish.
Traced back to its etymological root, egregious comes from the Latin ex grege, meaning "rising above the flock." In a very specific way, it meant exceptional or distinguished. The word arrived in English in the early 1500s and by the turn of the 1600s, a century of deliberately ironic usage had twisted the word's meaning to the point where, even now, you only really see someone describe something as egregious if it's also bad (as in an egregious error).
As if to prove that there's absolutely no logic to language change, while awesome was going on its journey from bad to good, awful was going in the opposite direction. Originally, in the 1300s, it meant something awe-inspiring, worthy of respect and admiration. It was only in the 1800s that it came to mean something specifically bad.
If you squint you can probably see how the word terrific—first documented in the 1660s—could mean "frightening." Something terrific filled you with terror; it was literally terrifying. In the mid-18th century, terrific came to mean something great or severe, and by the late 19th century it had morphed into its modern meaning: excellent.
In late Old English, something smeart was painful or stinging. Indeed, that meaning survives in the form "that smarts." It wasn't long before smart came to mean someone with quick wit (as in, having a sharp tongue), and from there it became associated with general intelligence.
It almost boggles the mind to imagine that a word so tepid and noncommittal in its praise might have once been offensive, but it arrived into English from the Old French nice, where it meant foolish or weak. During the middle ages it came to mean shy, reserved, or fastidious, and it was only in the mid- to late 1700s—when society began to deem those qualities respectable—that the word started to take on positive meanings.