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Words that have changed meaning over the years

Thursday August 8 2013

By Grace Kenganzi

There are words and phrases we use or hear and wonder why they are used in that particular way. Take “dressed to the nines”, for instance. The nines is not a period in time nor is it a weather condition so you can’t help wonder what smartly dressed people have to do with nines or even why they have to be in plural.

And in the spirit of curiosity, and after asking a few people what words or phrases they found strange, we look at how some words came up or how some have changed meaning over the years. Seeing as English is not our native language, we relied heavily on etymology literature to get this information, mainly the online The Origin of Words and Names and Bill Bryson’s The Mother Tongue: English and How It Got That Way.

How some words came to be
As you sip on your orange juice, do you ever wonder why it is called orange?

For Imelda Mwine, this question came up because orange juice is more yellow than orange and that the peels are green. From the above context, the name has nothing to do with colour and a lot to do with the word getting lost in translation.

The fruit has its origin in ancient India, where it was referred to as naranj in Sanskrit, the language spoken at the time. After trade started between Indians and Arabs, the latter translated it into the Arabic version, naranjah.

The fruit made its way to Spain since North African Arabs held rule over them, where it took on the Spanish form, naranja. When the fruit finally made its way to English-speaking parts if the world, it was called a naranj.


However, the spelling changed to narange since it was rare to find English words ending with the letter J. The word lost the letter N at the beginning, becoming arange. Over the years, the A evolved into an O and soon the fruit was an orange, as it still is today.

Another word that came up through changes in translation was chocolate.
No one asked about its origin but I could not resist bringing it up, given how much we enjoy it. Again, the Spaniards had something to do with this word.

It all started with them going to Mexico, in the land of the Aztecs to be specific. While there, the Aztecs gave them a drink made from specific beans. The Aztecs referred to the beans as choco, which means bitter in their language, because of their taste.

The beans were mixed in water, which is referred to as Atl in the Aztec language. In short, the drink was called choc-atl, literally translated as bitter water. However, the Spaniards mispronounced the word because of the “atl”, and it became chocolato.

When the Spaniards made their way back to Europe, they brought the drink with them, and there, not only did its taste change since it was sweetened with sugar, its spelling also changed to chocolate, since that is how English-speaking people pronounced it.

For Tom Walusimbi, who I assume is a chess player, the word checkmate has nothing to do with gloating, rather it has a lot to do with the game itself. In chess, when the other person beats you, they have taken over your kingdom and killed your king, which is why they say “checkmate”. This word was originally Sha-k-mate, a Farsi word which means “the king is dead.”

The Sh became Ch when the game became popular in French-speaking places and was left that way in English. For Henry Kasaija and Tom Bakowa, who asked about the origin of pencil vanilla, fundamental, orchid, and avocado, it is quite obvious you were being cheeky and know how these words came to be since they all fall under a category which is too naughty to be published in a family-friendly paper.

Words whose meaning has changed
The word nice means something pleasant and agreeable but in the 13th century it meant that you were stupid and foolish.
Between that century and the 18th, it went through meaning extravagant, elegant, strange, modest, thin and shy. Another word whose original meaning had less flattering connotations is pretty, which meant a crafty person, then it became clever, since crafty people tend to be clever, then it became fine and now means beautiful.

The word buxom conjures the image of a large breasted woman since that is what the word means.

However, the word originally meant obedient, later changed to compliant, then lively since most compliant women were always willing to entertain their men’s guests, serving drinks and what not. Soon, the word meant plump since most lively women were plump, later evolving to large-breasted.

Origin of some phrases
“I don’t know why people tell you to break a leg when you are going to make a presentation. I know they mean good luck but I’ve always wondered why those exact words are used,” Sumaya Nalunkuma pointed out.

Break a leg
And I’m with you on that. What does a broken leg have to do with luck? According to The Phrase Finder, the term started because actors and actresses were superstitious and so believed that wishing them good luck before a performance would jinx it so instead of saying good luck, stage managers would say, break a leg, and the phrase stuck.

Fit as a fiddle
Christine Asiimwe wonders why we use as fit as a fiddle. Her argument is that fiddles look nothing like humans. Well Asiimwe, it turns out that while fit generally means healthy and energetic today, it originally meant seemly or suitable.

The phrase itself was originally used in 1603 by Thomas Dekker, in The batchelars banquet with the phrase, “then comes downe mistresse Nurse as fine as a farthing fiddle, in her petticoate and kertle.” In 1616, it came up again in W. Haughton’s English-men for my Money in the way we use it today, “as fit as a fiddle.” There are many more words and phrases that make us wonder how they came to be but we would go on and no.

Dressed to the nines
However, I cannot end without explaining the phrase which started this whole piece –dressed to the nines. According to a Deseret News article published in 1997, the phrase comes from a Scottish poem, which has the lines “The bonny Lines therein thou sent me, /How to the nines they did content me.

” From the poem, you can tell that the person speaking finds what they see is pleasing, which is what well-dressed people do.

However, Samuel Fallows in The Progressive Dictionary of the English Language suggests that it might have been derived from “dressed to thine eyes”, an old English phrase that meant dressed so that you can find favour in me, and that it changed because of being misheard. Whatever explanation is the real one, at least they both help us make better sense of the phrase.

Other words that have changed

Word Original Meaning
Awful Deserving of awe
Brave Cowardice (as in bravado)
Counterfeit Legitimate copy
Cute Bow-legged
Girl Young person of either sex
Guess Take aim
Knight Boy
Luxury Sinful self-indulgence
Neck Parcel of land (as in neck of the woods)
Notorious Famous
Nuisance Injury, harm
Quick Alive (as in quicksilver)
Sophisticated Corrupted
Tel To count (as in bank teller)Truant Beggar

Traunt Begger