The English language is in a constant state of flux. Whether it’s from new technology needing new words to talk about it, or young people inventing and repurposing slang, words and their definitions change all the time. In some cases, people just decide to use a word in a different way or in a new context, and it ends up sticking. Here, we’re going to take a look at a few of these examples. After all, a word is only as good as its last meaning.
In the 14th century, the original meaning of fantastic was “only existing in the imagination,” as if of a fantasy. This took the more realistic meaning that we are familiar with (“wonderful or very good”), in the 1930s. It is unclear who decided to change the word and bring everyone back down to earth, nor why they did so.
There was once a time when vegetarians were able to eat “meat” for every meal. Although it was unlikely there were many vegetarians back then, the Middle English definition of meat was simply “food, nourishment, or animal feed." This included carrots, potatoes and anything else on the menu. It wasn’t until the 1300s that the word started to refer to the “flesh of warm-blooded animals killed and used as food.” Uncomfortably graphic, yet oddly appetizing.
As one of the most famously abused words in the English language, "literally" is the bane of many grammar police. Little do they know they might be the very ones in need of a night in grammar jail. Yes, the definition since the 1530s has been “in accordance with the exact meaning of the words used.” However, for over 300 years, the word has been squeezed and squished into so many dubious contexts that the Oxford English Dictionary literally added “used for emphasis while not being literally true” to the list of definitions.
Myriad used to be a word specifically for the number 10,000. This came from the Greek “myrias,” meaning the same thing. However, the word always had connotations with “a number too large to be counted,” as 10,000 was the largest number the Greeks could express in one word. Now, of course, we just say “ten thousand” and “myriad” simply means “a large amount.”
Egregious has had its definition completely flipped on its head, and the reason is quite comical. In the 1530s, the word meant “excellent or distinguished.” However, by the 1600s, egregious was being used ironically to mean “outstandingly bad or shocking,” in a sense. This audacious use of the word is ultimately what stuck, and “egregious” has been forever tarnished with its new reputation.