Five English Words that Used to Mean Something Totally Different

Language is always changing, be it because of technological advances, changing social norms, or just plain randomness. However, some words change more than others – you’ll be surprised at what some of these words used to mean!


Now a clear, if mild, compliment, calling someone nice would have been an insult a few centuries ago . Nice came into English in the fourteenth century from the Latin word for ignorant, and it meant foolish or silly. It also picked up connotations of wantonness. It’s not entirely clear what happened next, but by the sixteenth century nice meant something closer to fastidious or fussy. The meaning shy began to emerge in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, followed by carefully accurate. These two last meanings remained until the nineteenth century. Nice has been used to mean pleasing for 250 years or so, but only recently did this become the dominant meaning.


Horror and terror are both negative emotions. You want to avoid anything horrible or terrible. Yet, while being told you’ve done a horrific job may be a harrowing experience, being told your work is terrific is a compliment. Why? Well, just as horrific describes something that inspires horror, terrific used to describe things that inspired terror. The positive sense of terrific grew out of the negative one – as late as the 1870s, people began saying things were terrific as a way of saying they were so good it was overwhelming.


In the Middle Ages, villain simply referred to a peasant. However, due to peasants’ low-class status and location far from the supposedly more-civilized city centers, people started to use the word to mean something closer to ignorant person or criminal, and eventually this meaning superseded the original. If you think about it, this one is sort of insulting to rural folks. If you’re looking for an alternative word without the baggage, you might want to go with scoundrel, whose origin is entirely unknown.

The Joker - source:


Nowadays, if you defend yourself against an accusation and call that an apology, it won’t go over too well – as any kindergartener can tell you, making an apology means admitting you did something wrong and saying you’re sorry. However, when the word first entered English in the early sixteenth century, it meant the pleading off from a charge or imputation. Eventually, the meaning shifted so that an apology could consist of an explanation that no offense had been intended and an expression of regret for any accidental harm caused, but this meaning didn’t take over until the eighteenth century.

Toshiba chief Hisao Tanaka resigns over $1.2bn accounting scandal - source:


Commedia dell’arte, Europe’s first form of professional theatrical productions, arose in Renaissance Italy and ended up inspiring artists from Picasso to Shakespeare and maybe even Mozart. This form of theater included stock characters who often fell into four categories: innamorati, or lovers; capitani, or captains; vecchi, or old men; and zanni. The word zanni derives from a Lombard or Venetian version of the name Giovanni – itself from the Hebrew name Yochanan, meaning “God is gracious” – which was common among servants in the Republic of Venice. Zanni characters were servants and typically tricksters, and one of the most popular was Arlecchino, or Harlequin, who provided comic relief in many plays. In French and then in English, a version of the word zanni came to mean comic to the extent of being crazily ridiculous, which explains why we have the word zany today. So, from “God is gracious” to servant characters to crazily ridiculous? You could say that zany has the zaniest history of all.

Alicia Holland

Alicia Holland has a B.A. in creative writing from Binghamton University and an M.A. in teaching of English from Teachers College, Columbia University. She loves to play with language and literature.

Subscribe to blog.etype

Get the latest posts delivered right to your inbox.

or subscribe via RSS with Feedly!