Friday, June 27, 2014
Penny from Benzonia, Michigan, called to confirm a word origin that she had heard about. The word was terrific, and she was told that it originally meant terrifying or frightening. Her information was correct. The word entered English as the equivalent of a Latin verb that meant to terrify. Now it means amazing, impressive, excellent, exceedingly good, and splendid.
It’s a great demonstration of the fact that words can accrue multiple meanings over the centuries, and that it’s even possible for the meaning to do a complete reversal. A couple of other examples spring to mind.
The word silly means foolish or frivolous. But originally it meant amazing, impressive, excellent, exceedingly good, and splendid. Before arriving at its current meaning, it meant weak or pitiable. Quite the turnaround.
The word nice is another interesting example. Now it means pleasant and considerate. When it first entered English, it meant foolish, silly, ignorant, and simple. Then it transitioned through showy and ostentatious; finely dressed and elegant; scrupulous and punctilious; fussy and strict; fastidious and decent; shy and modest; and intricate and precise. Talk about evolution.
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