Words With Morphing Definitions

Word Morphing

The following words started out meaning something very different from today’s definitions. Are you ready to be surprised by their original meanings?


This was originally a cooking term in the 1500s meaning a “frothy liquid.” A century later it referred to an unusual mix of liquors! But now it means nonsense – senseless, stupid, or exaggerated talk or writing. You know, similar to “hogwash.”


From the late 1400s, hogwash originally meant “kitchen swill for pigs,” which feels a bit obvious once you think about it. But it now means “nonsense” (or, “balderdash”)!


The very earliest sense of the word “husband,” or “husbandman” (in the 11th or 12th century) meant the steward of land, the tiller of the soil. By the 13th century, the word morphed to reflect his married status, since the majority of the landholders and farmers were married. “Husbandry” came to refer to animals and agriculture specifically in the 1500’s, while “husband,” oddly, remained the identifier of a married man.


From the Latin, recipere, meaning “receive,” or the singular imperative recipe, meaning “to take” the word wasn’t used so much for whipping up snickerdoodles as it was for cooking up a medical prescription. In 1500s Middle French, the word became récipé, meaning a medical prescription. “Rx” was used as an abbreviated form of the term! The word was first used for food preparation in the 1700s.


While you might think of a slightly dated term for a frilly party dress, the word “frock” originally referred to the robes of priests and monks. When a priest loses his place in the church, we still use a form of the word in “defrocked.”


Originally meaning to corrupt or undermine one’s morals in the 1800s (as one might think it should!), “demoralized” slowly came to mean the loss of beneficial moral influence, or loss of moral significance. By the 1900s, it changed dramatically, to mean loss of confidence or hope.


“Learn” morphed a full 180 degrees, starting out as it did meaning “teach,” in the 13th century. A father might “learn his son how to chop wood.” That usage fell out of favor in the 19th century, but learn still sits in for “teach,” in a slangy way or colloquial way, today. It’s of German origin from “lernen,” which means…learn.


There was a time when “abroad” didn’t mean faring overseas, but it meant only going outdoors, outside one’s home: “She enjoys her walks abroad.” At different periods in history, the word also meant, “scattered,” “unfurled,” “confused,” “widely known” and “throughout.” Now that’s a workhorse of a word.


Now used to mean an atmosphere of chaos or mayhem (from a horrific disaster to a kindergartner’s birthday party), the word “bedlam” comes from the first mental institution in England, The Hospital of St. Mary of Bethlehem, built in 1676. Londoners referred to it as “Bethlem” and often pronounced it “Bedlam.” In the 1500 and 1600s, the term was generic for “asylum” and for their clients (“bedlams,” or “bedlamites”).


Now known as the last railway car that serves a train’s conductor and crew (and mostly phased out in the 1980s), the term originally applied to a ship’s galley. From the early Dutch word “cabûse” as well as the Low German “kabhûse,” the word first appeared around the middle of the 1700s, and it didn’t become a railroading term until the mid- to late-1800s.

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[ sik-uh-fuhnt, -fant ]

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Word of the day

[ sik-uh-fuhnt, -fant ]