A new day, a new thing

My goal to learn something new every day

Day 17: That’s awfully nice

Words (and language in general) are really quite fascinating. They are constantly evolving and changing, taking on new meanings and leaving original ones behind. Two  years ago, when news ‘broke’ that the OED had included a definition for the word “literally” that actually meant figuratively, some people were outraged. I remember even reading a quote on Twitter sarcastically congratulating English speakers around the world for killing the English language. In fact, that Twitterer couldn’t have been farther from the truth. Languages change all of the time, they always have and always will. The only time that we can ever say that a language has been killed is when there is nobody left to speak the language, and it can therefore never change.

We use words every day, but many of the words that we use began their life with a different meaning. Today, I went on a brief search for words that I use, but never before knew the original meaning. Here are two words whose meanings have gone through drastic changes.


Today, we think of the word “nice” as having a positive meaning. It might not be a very strong word, and I can remember that my year 8 English teacher absolutely hated the word, and hated seeing us use it because it didn’t really convey a strong sense of meaning. But no one can deny that to say “He’s a nice guy” is such a bad thing. It’s not always been that way though. The word originally comes from Latin, and was formed by adding ne- meaning ‘not’ and the stem scire meaning ‘to know’, which gave us nescius. So essentially the word originally meant not-knowing: a fool or stupid person.


This is one that a student asked me about a while ago, and at the time, I didn’t have an answer for him: If “wonderful” has a good meaning, why doesn’t “awful”? Turns out that my student might have been on to something. Awful did indeed used to mean full of awe. Awe itself comes from aghe, and the word awful is a replacement for the Old English word egefull. During the 14th century, it was used to describe something worthy of respect or fear. We now know that the word has the more negative meaning to describe something very bad. The present-day meaning for the word dates back to the early 19th century.

So, the next time someone calls you awful (not that I’m insinuating you are of course), just say thanks.

Featured image courtesy of crdotx on Flickr

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This entry was posted on January 17, 2015 by in Language and tagged , .


January 2015

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