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Ten Words That Used To Mean Something Very Different

Updated on March 18, 2015

But First, Tell Me This:

What gets on on your nerves more?

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1. Bully

Today, a bully is a negative thing. We call people bullies who are always picking on others. It can mean teasing or even refer to beating up.

But in the past, the word bully wasn't necessarily bad. 'Bully for you!' was an expression meaning 'good for you!'. 'Bully' was also an adjective placed before a noun to emphasize its awesomeness. "Bully good' would mean 'exceptionally good.'

This Is A Bully Race!

2. Ejaculate

You may be wondering why I'm using such an inappropriate word in my article, but the truth is that the word ejaculate was far from inappropriate fifty to one hundred years ago. In fact, it was a word used instead of 'exclaim' or 'shout.'

"That's crazy," you ejaculated, when you heard of the origin of this word.

3. Awesome

Awesome has also drastically changed meanings. Now we usually use it in this sort of context: "Awesome hat, dude!" But several decades ago, awesome meant something entirely different.

"There was an awesome lightning storm last night," you might have said if you lived in the time of corsets. And you wouldn't have meant that it was a cool lightning storm. You would have meant a fearful, awe-inspiring storm. Awesome used to be the synonym of awful.

And if you lived in the time of the Nazis, you might have said, "The Nazis are awesome!" (And it wouldn't have been a compliment, either.)

Dick Rover, The Rover Boys
Dick Rover, The Rover Boys

4. Awful

Similarly to awesome, awful used to mean the opposite. But contrary to awesome, people used to say awful and mean full of awe, rather than simply terrible. Isn't it strange how these two words have always had opposing meanings--and have both switched their definitions so they now mean the polar opposite of what they used to?

So to clarify, while awesome used to mean awful, awful used to mean awesome. Confusing.

Anyway, you might once have said, "Your hat is pretty awful." To which I would have answered, "Thanks!"


'Your Hat is Awful.' 'Thanks!'

5. Nice

Jane is nice. Rather stupid and slow, you know, but we like her anyway. She's, uhm, yeah, nice.

No, I'm not being sarcastic. Stupidity used to be the actual definition of niceness. So the next time you don't want to hurt someone's feelings when they ask you what you think about them, go ahead and call them nice. No, you're not lying. You're just telling them the truth.

'You're Nice. There, I Said It.'

6. Lame

Here's another word that might surprise you. Did you know lame, as in, 'you're so lame at this video game', used to mean physically handicapped? Back in the days (less than a century ago) when a broken leg could get you branded a 'cripple' for life, the word 'lame' was seen as a kind alternative.

'Hey, you should pay a visit to the lame girl next door. Then you'll have done your charity for the month.'

The Lame Girl Sits Pensively, Wishes She Weren't Always Referred To As The Lame Girl

7. Hussy

Another word that's not used in polite society today, but which once was, the hussy used to be a synonym for 'housewife.'

"I'm the man of the house, and my wife is the hussy."

"Come on, now, don't call her that."

"Huh?"

'My Wife the Hussy'

8. Quell

Today, to quell means to suppress, end, or subdue something, like a fire, feelings or a rebellion (it's pretty vague.)

Back in the violent days of yore, though, to quell meant to kill something. That was it.

'Say, Bob, did you see Jo?'

'I did. I quelled him.'

'Did you? And that means you--'

'I quelled him.'

'I see. So you--'

'I quelled him.'

Zip. Zilch. Nada. Zero. And that's to quell, folks.

9. Guy

This isn't the male equivalent to gal or girl. Rather, it's an eponym based off the name of Guy Fawkes, who tried and failed to blow up Parliament in 1605. People would burn his effigy, aka, a 'Guy Fawkes', which became shortened to 'guy'. This later become known as a scary figure.

'What's all that white face paint? You look like a guy!'

"Relax, it's for Halloween.'

Eventually, in the United States, it came to refer to men in general.

'Hello-o-o Down There? Are You A Scary Guy? Or A Human Being?'

10. Spinster

Nope, a spinster didn't actually always mean an old, married woman. In fact, it used to refer to a woman who spun. This one actually makes sense.

'Hey Bob, where I can find you wife, the spinster?'

'Oh, at our marital home, at the spinning wheel.'

And Now Tell Me This:

Which Original Meaning Surprised You Most?

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