Watch Out for Words That Have Changed Meaning Over Time

by | Nov 8, 2021 | GrammarSpot, Writing Tips | 0 comments

My friend Kathy was talking about her frustrating day at work. She’d spent hours on the phone with customer service, trying to fix a billing error. “My head was literally exploding!”

words that have changed meaning over time

I looked over at Kathy, who was sipping her tea with what seemed to be a perfectly intact head. Had it “literally” exploded that morning? Or was this a classic example of someone using a word that has changed meaning over time?


“Literally” is a Word that Has Changed Meaning Over Time

“Literally” is one of those dangerous words that have changed meaning over time, and the popular usage is incorrect. “Literally” means “word-for-word.” It can also mean “truly” or “actually.” Many people who are unaware of the correct definition use “literally” to give extra punch to a statement that’s not actually true.

Look through these examples of the word “literally” that have changed meaning over time and spot the error in each one:

– His guitar skills are literally from another planet. (Someone should tell NASA about this.)

– We literally died laughing. (So . . . am I speaking with a friendly ghost?)

– I literally ate a ton of pizza. (That would be impressive.)

Sometimes the misuse of “literally” is amusing. At other times, it can be confusing, especially in written language.


Correct Usage of “Literally”

If you choose to use this tricky little word in your writing, make sure you’re using it correctly.

– She translated the sign literally from Japanese into English.

– The new city regulations literally banned all lawn watering from April through October.

A good rule of thumb for writers is to avoid the use of “literally” unless there’s no other word that will do the job. Don’t use it as an intensifier. It doesn’t mean “very” or “figuratively,” even if your favorite celebrity uses it that way.


Other Words That Have Changed Meaning Over Time

words that changed meaning over time

“Literally” isn’t the only common word that has become a moving target. Writers should be careful about how they use the following words, especially in formal contexts. Each of these are words that have changed meaning over time:

  • -“Epic” refers to a long work of literature about legendary characters and their heroic deeds. Your birthday party wasn’t epic, unless there were some ancient Greek gods and heroes on the guest list.
  • -“Fail” is a verb, not a noun. The noun is “failure.” Getting this wrong in essays or online articles can be embarrassing.
  • -“Stellar” is an astronomical term. It means “like a star” or “having to do with stars.” If your favorite restaurant is stellar, it has a surface temperature of approximately 10,000 degrees Fahrenheit and probably isn’t a comfortable place to eat.


The English Language Is Always Changing

Every language changes and develops over time. English is no exception. Many words have different meanings than they had a few hundred years ago. In the year 1700, an “artificial and awful” building was artistic and awe-inspiring. No architect would want to hear their work described that way in 2015! Other common terms have also changed over the centuries, from “silly” (which used to mean “blessed”) to “nice” (which used to mean “fussy”).

You can become a better writer by learning more about words that have changed meaning over time and how to use them correctly. Have you spotted any strange new meanings lately? Let us know in the comments!

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