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15 Common Words That Used To Mean Completely Different Things

There was a time when 'Girl' meant 'Boy,' 'Bully' meant 'Sweetheart,' and 'Fizzle' meant 'Fart.' Let's return there together.

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Cute (Dates to 1731)

Today’s Meaning: Pretty in a youthful way.

Original Meaning: Clever, shrewd. Nineteenth-century politician Thomas Chandler Haliburton used the word to describe a shady lawyer. 

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Bully (Dates to 1538)

Today’s Meaning: Someone cruel to those weaker.

Original Meaning: Sweetheart. According to Merriam-Webster, it most likely came from the old Dutch word boel, meaning “lover.” Here are some words that underwent the reverse transition: they used to be insults but are now compliments!

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Prestigious (Dates to 1546)

Today’s Meaning: Honored.

Original Meaning: Involving trickery, illusion, or conjuring. Interesting…”prestigious” used to mean something a little closer to “presto”! Here’s why we say “abracadabra” during magic tricks.

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Matrix (Dates to 1555)

Today’s Meaning: Pattern of lines and spaces.

Original Meaning: Female breeding animal. This usage dates as far back as ancient Rome! Try bringing back these 10 ancient, almost-extinct words.

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Garble (Dates to the 1400s)

Today’s Meaning: Cause something to be confusing.

Original Meaning: Sift, separate out impurities. Almost the opposite meaning! These words mean the exact opposite of what you think they do.

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Nervous (Dates to the 1300s)

Today’s Meaning: Jumpy.

Original Meaning: Sinewy or strong.

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Assassin (Dates to the 1200s)

Today’s Meaning: Killer of a VIP.

Original Meaning: Hashish eater. “Hashish” is a hemp plant, and the word “assassin” comes from an Arabic word meaning “drug addict.” Learn 12 more quirky words that don’t have an English translation but we wish they did.

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Silly (Dates to the 1300s)

Today’s Meaning: Foolish or frivolous. Here are some silly-sounding words you won’t believe are real.

Original Meaning: Innocent or pitiable.

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Nice (Dates to the 1300s)

Today’s Meaning: Kind, good.

Original Meaning: Foolish, wanton. If you didn’t know that “wanton” means reckless and hard to control, you might need to brush up on your eighth grade vocab words.

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Backlog (Dates to 1684)

Today’s Meaning: Large number of jobs to be done.

Original Meaning: Largest log in the hearth. Yes, “backlog” used to denote a literal log!

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Dapper (Dates to the 1400s)

Today’s Meaning: Stylish.

Original Meaning: Brave. Either way, it’s an attractive quality! Did you know about these 10 uncommon English words we never use?

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Girl (Dates to the 1300s)

Today’s Meaning: Young female.

Original Meaning: Young person, either gender.

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Fantastic (Dates to the 1300s)

Today’s Meaning: Exceptionally good.

Original Meaning: Existing only in the imagination, like a fantasy. Here are 70 words and phrases you didn’t know you were using wrong this whole time.

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Buxom (Dates to the 1100s)

Today’s Meaning: Large-breasted.

Original Meaning: Compliant or obedient. John Milton used it this way in Paradise Lost; he describes Death flying easily through “the buxom air.” Did you know that Paradise Lost can reveal the truth about a lost letter of our alphabet?

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Fizzle (Dates to 1598)

Today’s Meaning: Fail weakly, die out.

Original Meaning: Fart quietly. Think you’re a word genius? Well see if you know how to say these words even the smartest people mispronounce.

Get more fun and fascinating facts

Check out the latest Uncle John’s Bathroom Reader® titles at Next, learn 7 new words that will instantly make you sound smarter.

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