Old Words, New Meanings: Brave Bully Doesn’t Mean What it Used To

Bully

We hope you’ve never been the victim of a bully, but if you have, we know you’d never describe your tormentor as “excellent, a jovial sweetheart...” Surprisingly, bully carried these cheerful meanings as far back as the 1500s. Bully was even used as a synonym for lover. Somewhere in the 1600s, the “fine fellow” lost his charm and became a “harasser of the weak.” The identity crisis gets messier in the 1700s, when bully also meant “protector of a prostitute."

Clue

No, we aren't talking about a hint in a scavenger hunt, and we're not talking about the board game turned into the 1985 classic film staring Tim Curry. Nope, clue used to mean a ball of yarn. The thread interweaving our modern understanding of clue with its ancestor clew winds back to—yep—the 1500s, when its meaning in Old English was less exciting than it is today. 

Cute

The cuddly, squishy, ooshy-wooshiness associated with cute today wouldn’t have been understood in the 1700s. Agh! How would we describe “Cute Cat Pushing Kitty in Cart” back then?! Sorry, we digress. The word cute three centuries ago was a shortened form of acute, and thus something that was cute was “clever” or “keen.”

Defecate

Plug your nose, here it goes! So, defecate used to mean “to cleanse, or purify.” Huh. Makes no sense, right? It starts to become clear when you look at where this word comes from: the Latin phrase de faece (“from dregs”). In this sense, feces describes any kind of sediment. You defecate your coffee feces in the trash. You actually taste wine feces (or lees) when you drink a complex, full-bodied glass of chardonnay. We’ve had defecate in the gutter for far too long, especially when we learn that its poopy sense wasn’t even used until the 1800s! In the history of time and defecation, that’s really recent.

Ejaculate

The modern-day meaning of ejaculate has been around since the 1570s, and was shortly followed by a second meaning: “to exclaim suddenly.” Curiously, despite the apparent co-existence of these meanings over time, the second meaning for ejaculate was perfectly acceptable in the day-to-day conversation of conservative 1800s society. That's certainly changed.

Facetious

Facetious has done a complete 180 over the years. What once meant elegant, refined, and courteous now means to make light of serious issues, in a humorous, sarcastic, or frivolous way. It's basically impossible to share both of these characteristics at once, unless you're Frasier Crane.

Flirt

You know how sometimes all it takes is one "eye-five" at a bar (you know, when eyes meet? Just roll with it), for someone to think you’re flirting? Unfortunately, that’s a fairly frequent scenario, and if the archaic meaning of flirt had any oomph now, the person-who-shall-remain-clueless would know to head the other way. In the 1500s (we’re ba-ack!), flirting meant “to turn up one’s nose or sneer at”, or “to flick, as with the fingers.” 

Guy

Guy has had a long journey: First, a rope or chain, then a proper noun, and finally, a way of addressing a group of...anyone, really. Guy became a proper noun thanks to Guy Fawkes, a plotter in the failed assassination attempt of King James I in 1605. Guy’s face has since become a symbol of protest against tyranny (thanks, in large part, to illustrator David Lloyd’s caricature mask designed for V for Vendetta). The word guy eventually described a “grotesquely or poorly dressed person” in early 1800s Britain, and it didn’t achieve its informal status as “fellow” in American English until the 1840s.

Hussy

Long ago, hussy was merely a synonym for housewife or mistress of the household (the Old English word for house is hus). Originally pronounced huzzy, it gradually came to embrace all women and girls. But, by the 1650s, hussy acquired negative connotations, signifying a female who behaved improperly (By whose standards? We'll let you guess). By the 1700s, hussies were lewd, immoral, mischievous, and promiscuous women. 

Pretty

Pretty started out in Old English as prættig, meaning “tricky, crafty, wily.” Then in the 1300s, pretty grew a full beard and bounded through fire to save damsels in distress. This “manly, gallant” sense gradually gave way by the 1400s to the more familiar “attractive” and “beautiful in a slight way.”

Slut

Sheesh. An offensive term bloated with meaning! Slut made its first appearance on paper in 1402 and referred to “untidy” and “slovenly” habits or appearance. Of course, the term was usually applied to a woman (often a servant), but Chaucer was at least one author who used “sluttish” to describe a man’s appearance (we knew we liked that guy!). At least as early as the 1660s, slut also referred to a rag dipped in lard and burned as a light, or slut lamp. Contemporary usage runs the gamut, from the sense of vilification against women (slut-bashing, slut-shaming), reclamation by some women (SlutWalk, slut pride), and as a non-slur suffix meaning “someone who is passionate about” (volunteer-slut, kale-slut, bungee-jumping-slut). As far as we're concerned, this word isn't done evolving.

Brave

In the 1500s, being brave wasn't a positive trait: It actually meant you were boastful. It’s not a stretch to see the connection between bravery and boasting (think of those plucky people centuries on who still like to crow about their courage). The link becomes even clearer when we see the brav[e] in bravado, or the pompous display of valiance. We might do well to heed our Medieval Latin elders, whose bravo meant “wild, savage,” and bravus “cutthroat, villain” when we describe a person or act as “brave.” There’s a fine line between courage and recklessness!