Words that have changed meaning over time

Historic events can have their own impact on the language

By Shashi Tharoor

Published: Thu 10 Feb 2022, 11:39 PM

Last updated: Fri 11 Feb 2022, 4:46 PM

A few weeks ago, we discussed a number of terms that have arisen in recent years that involved changing the meanings of words we all know, or compounding two familiar words to give a totally new meaning to the resulting expression.

This is not just a new phenomenon: words have changed their meaning throughout the history of the English language. Awful, for instance, along with ‘awesome’, was synonymous with “awe-inspiring”, but evolved over the years to acquire a purely negative meaning — “that’s an awful film”. Curiously enough, ‘awesome’ evolved the opposite way, and took on the connotation of “extremely good”. In much the same way, “fantastic” used to mean only something from fantasy, an imaginary idea or story, but now is a word to convey praise and admiration. Similar progress was made by the word naughty. Originally, a naughty person was one who had naught, or nothing. From that straightforward meaning it came to imply one who was evil or amoral, devoid of any good qualities. Now it refers mainly to children who are badly behaved.

Naughty, these days, often goes with ‘nice’. ‘Nice’ was originally a negative term for a stupid, ignorant or foolish person, which is not surprising, since it is derived from the Latin nescius, meaning ignorant. Today, you are unlikely to call an idiot nice. Meanwhile, silly went in the opposite direction: it first referred to people or actions that were worthy or blessed, gradually was used to refer to the weak and vulnerable, and now is only applied to those who are foolish, usually in a trivial way.

So given that words can change meaning over time, the kinds of definitional changes we discussed two weeks ago are part of the historical evolution of the English language. This also means that historic events can have their own impact on the language. The coronavirus pandemic that has assailed the world in the last two years is no exception: it has given us words and expressions that didn’t mean quite the same thing before 2020.

The best-known of the coronavirus-related terms that were added to our vocabulary was probably social distancing. Before Covid-19, the term might have been used to refer to snobbish elites keeping away from mixing with the hoi polloi, or racist colonials in the era of Empire refusing to drink or dine at the club with the brown or black people they ruled. Since March 2020, however, “social distancing” has been used to describe the practice of keeping physically apart from others to prevent the transmission of a virus — maintaining a greater-than-usual space between yourself and other people, and avoiding direct contact with them, especially in public places, in order to minimise exposure to contamination. What’s interesting is not just that the meaning of the term has changed, but that it has acquired a narrower specificity it never possessed before the outbreak of a worldwide contagion necessitated measures that brought a new vocabulary with them.

A Covid-related term like “self-isolation” is obviously clear in meaning, but “herd immunity” is less so. One rather long and unwieldy definition of the term that I have come across runs as follows: “a reduction in the risk of infection with a specific communicable disease that occurs when a significant proportion of the population has become immune to infection (as because of previous exposure or vaccination) so that susceptible individuals are much less likely to come in contact with infected individuals.” Again, specificity is key. You cannot use “herd immunity” to describe, for example, the fact a large mob or “herd” that commits acts of mass violence like a riot cannot be prosecuted because of the legal difficulty of identifying individual law-breakers. That could be “herd immunity” too, but it simply can’t be used that way now!

Another term that Covid-19 brought into vogue is “super-spreader” — again we know what each of those two words mean, but now it applies very specifically to an event, an individual or a place through which or whom a large number of people contract the same contagious disease. You can use “super-spreader” as a noun (“my host on Christmas Eve was a super-spreader — every guest caught the virus”) or as an adjective (“I wish I hadn’t gone to that party — it turned out to be a real super-spreader event”). The term has turned out to be as communicable as the virus that promoted its use!


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