While man­ag­ing a client’s Pin­ter­est account, I came across a meme that claimed nice used to mean some­thing entire­ly dif­fer­ent from what it does now. I looked it up and it was true.

I decid­ed to look up a few more. Here is what I came up with:

1. Nice

When nice entered Mid­dle Eng­lish from French in the 14th cen­tu­ry, it meant sim­ple, fool­ish, or igno­rant. That def­i­n­i­tion stuck for about 300 years. Dur­ing that last 100 years or so, it start­ed to take on a cou­ple of oth­er def­i­n­i­tions: strict; risky; show­ing sen­si­tive dis­cern­ment. The first two have since become obso­lete, but the third is still in use today. About 300 years ago, the mod­ern def­i­n­i­tion — pleas­ant and friend­ly — emerged, and it has per­sist­ed today.

2. Bad

The word bad appeared in Mid­dle Eng­lish, and its mean­ing of wicked, evil, or depraved is still a def­i­n­i­tion of the word we used today. What’s inter­est­ing is where the word orig­i­nat­ed. Some ety­mol­o­gists claim that it was a short­ened form of the Old Eng­lish word bbædde, which meant some­one who was inter­sexed or a man who was effem­i­nate.

3. Awful

This one should be self-explana­to­ry. What once meant full of awe (Get it? Awe full?) now means very unpleas­ant.

4. Brave

Brave appeared on the scene toward the end of the 15th cen­tu­ry, import­ed from a French word that was also spelled the same but meant some­thing more along the line of splen­did, showy, or gaudy.

5. Bul­ly

This word today describes some­one who picks on oth­er peo­ple (or the act of pick­ing on oth­ers). When it showed up in the 1530s, how­ev­er, from the Dutch boel, it was used as a term of endear­ment, some­thing sim­i­lar to today’s sweet­heart. With­in 100 years or so, the def­i­n­i­tion changed to fine fel­lowblus­ter­er, and final­ly harass­er of the weak. One def­i­n­i­tion of bul­ly by the ear­ly 18th cen­tu­ry was pro­tec­tor of pros­ti­tute, which seemed to be the great­est con­nect­ed between the orig­i­nal and cur­rent mean­ings.

About Kim Siever

I am a copy­writer and copy­ed­i­tor. I blog on writ­ing tips most­ly, but I some­times throw in my thoughts about run­ning a small busi­ness. Fol­low me on Twit­ter at @hotpepper.

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