When Words Stop to Mean What You Think They Mean

When something is cool, you think it’s hip, modern, or in. But did you know that this word originally meant “a measure of butter amounting to about 40 lb.” or a “butter container”?

Welcome to the confusing world of words!

Through usage, words change their meaning over time, often morphing into something that one would think is completely unrelated to its original meaning. Take for example the word matrix. Popularized by the Wachowskis’ hit sci-fi movie in 1999, the word actually originates from French and meant “pregnant animal.” Over the years, the word came to mean “womb” and subsequently, its modern usage of “something in which something else develops or forms.” How’s that for relativity?

Below is a list of some words that have changed their meaning over the years.


A word originating from the 13th century, awful used to mean “worthy of respect or fear.” The word has taken a complete 180-degree turn as it is now used to mean “extremely bad or unpleasant.” Don’t you just feel awful for this what used to be an awesome word?


When something is described as cute, you might immediately think of fluffy kittens and pastel-colored things. Back in the 1730s though, you’d have a hard time convincing people that kittens are anything but cute. This word actually used to mean “clever or shrewd.” It was only in the 1830s that the word entered slang and came to mean “pretty and dainty.”


While the exact date of when the word girl first came to be used is unknown, it is a known fact that the word used to refer to a young person of either sex.


Here’s another word that you’d have to take care to use if you were born in the late 13th century. Nice actually used to mean “foolish” and over the years, it took on other similar negative connotations—clumsy, stupid, ignorant, and cowardice. By around the late 14th century, the word came to have more neutral meanings of shyness and delicateness. When the period of enlightenment came, such qualities became revered within the society, thus resulting in its current meaning of “good and enjoyable.”

Columbia Journalism Review