“Meat” Used To Mean “Food” And Other Meanings That Narrowed Over Time

Words don't like to sit still. Over time, their meanings transform, expand, and even completely metamorphose. Typically, these changes happen gradually over time, but it’s fascinating to see just how differently you might read the same sentence today as our ancestors would have decades ago. 

One particularly interesting subset of words are those that once upon a time had very big, generic definitions but have since narrowed in meaning over time. The process is called semantic narrowing, and it has affected some well-known words in pretty surprising ways.

What one word meant yesterday may mean something completely different today. Click through to take a look at some words whose meanings have narrowed over time.

meat

Even if you were a vegetarian back in Anglo-Saxon times, you still would have eaten meat, or mete in Old English, the word that was used to refer to food in general.

It wasn’t until about 1300 that meat started to more narrowly refer to animal flesh.

Though it’s still used when we talk about the meat of nuts, that's certainly not what first comes to mind when someone refers to meat eaters. The original sense of meat also survives in sweetmeats, an old term for types of candied treats.

hound

The word hound stems from the Old English word hund, which meant "dog."

It was originally used much more generally to refer to any ole dog, but today we reserve it for those “trained to pursue game either by sight or by scent, especially one with a long face and large drooping ears.” That means, etymologically, hound dog means "dog dog"!

Calling a labradoodle or a Chihuahua a hound just wouldn’t jive with how we think of hounds these days.

girl

Back in 1250–1300, there were girls galore. That’s because the word girl (written in such forms as gurle, grile, and gerle) simply meant "child, young person," regardless of gender.

Today, of course, girl is most often used to refer to a young female, though women of any age may use it to refer to their friends in a casual manner, such as, “Girl, what’s up?”

deer

Today, when we think of the word deer, we think of graceful, often antlered creatures that frolic about in the woods. There was a time, however, when deer looked quite different.

Record before 900, the word deer comes from the Old English word dēor, meaning "beast," especially a four-legged animal in distinction from a bird or fish. By the 1400s, deer narrowed down to its current Bambi-like designation.

awful

If someone tells you your work is awful, that surely will give you a dreadful, ghastly, distressing, and well, awful feeling.

But awful, first recorded around 1200–50, is equivalent to "full of awe." Historically, awful could mean "inspiring awe" or "reverential." It could also mean "causing fear and dread," which contributed to how awful came, over the centuries, to refer to something considered bad or unpleasant.

The word awesome evolved in the opposite direction, from "inspiring awe" to "great, excellent."

wife

While today wife means a woman you’ve legally wed, the term used to refer to any woman in general.

Wife stems from the Old English word wīf, which meant “woman, female." Confusing? Wait until you learn that the word woman comes from the Old English wīfman, literally "wife-man," with man originally meaning "human being."

Wife could also mean "married woman" in Old English, but over time, it narrowed down more specifically, referring to a woman to whom someone has said, “I do.”

egregious

If you make an egregious error, you’re in big trouble, right? Today, yes, as it means “extraordinary in some bad way; glaring; flagrant.”

But back in the early 1500s, egregious meant "distinguished" or "eminent." It comes from the Latin word egregius, meaning "preeminent"—with a literal sense of "(standing) out from the flock."

naughty

The meaning of the word naughty today is nothing like it used to be ... quite literally.

Naughty is first recorded around 1350–1400, meaning "poor, needy" or "wicked, evil." Naughty is formed from the Old English naught, which meant "nothing" or "wickedness."

Today, however, the term naughty is used more specifically to refer to a child who’s misbehaving or someone whose humor or behavior is reaching raunchy or otherwise inappropriate territory.

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