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A Trusted Friend in a Complicated World

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”!

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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.”

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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.

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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.