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The Secret History of "Secretary"

10 Words That Used to Mean Something Different


Original Definition:

sweetheart, darling - used of either sex

Example:

"I kiss his dirty shoe, and from heart-string I love the lovely bully. What is thy name?" - William Shakespeare, Henry V, 1600

About the Word:

The meaning of bully has been changing for almost five hundred years now, with the earliest evidence of the word dating back to the 1530s.

Along the path from heartthrob to harasser bully has also meant 'a man of outstanding physical powers,' 'a hired ruffian,' 'the boss of a logging camp,' 'any of several blennioid fishes,' and numerous other things.

-Ammon Shea

Original Definition:

marked by obedience

Example:

"[We] adore and worship thy majesty, and tremble at thy judgments and works, and therefore pray always that we may content with thy will, and be buxom and obedient thereto." - Henry Bull, Christian Prayers and Meditations, 1566

About the Word:

Buxom is thought to have come from the Old English word bŪhsum, which shares a common ancestor with the Old English word bŪgan (meaning 'to bend').

In addition to its current primary meaning of 'full-bosomed,' buxom has at times in the past been used with such varied meanings as 'physically flexible' and 'full of gaiety.'

Original Definition:

to remove from office

Example:

"And under this power are comprehended all the other rights and marks of soveraigntie ... to proclaime warre, or to make peace: to take knowledge in the last appeale of the iudgments of all Magistrates: to appoint or to disappoint the greatest officers ..." - Pierre de la Primaudaye (Translated by T. Bowes), The French Academy, 1586

About the Word:

It seems as though such a word should be quite simple; if you appoint a person to some position you can also disappoint them from it.

Yet the English language does not always work in a way that makes sense. Not only do words change meaning, but some of our prefixes do not always mean the same thing. For instance, dis- can mean 'do the opposite of,' as in disqualify, and also can mean 'completely' as in disannul.

It would certainly be pleasant if we could immediately disappoint those who disappoint us, but we generally have to wait for an election to do this.

Original Definition:

to break wind quietly

Example:

"But the false old trot did so fizzle and fist, that she stunk like a hundred devils, which put the poor fox to a great deal of ill ease, for he knew not to what side to turn himself, to escape the unsavoury perfume of this old womans postern blasts." - François Rabelais (translated by Thomas Urquhart), Gargantua and Pantagruel, 1534

About the Word:

If you are in search of an accurate euphemism for a certain four-letter word, beginning with F, that designates an expulsive bodily function, look no further than fizzle.

For the first several hundred years that this word was in use as a verb in English (since 1533) it only referred to the act of passing wind silently. Fizzle did not begin to refer to making a sputtering sound until the 19th century, at which point the older meaning had, well, fizzled out.

Original Definition:

the internal parts of an animal: viscera

Example:

"Take white Pigeons, and fatten them with Pyneapple kernelles, the space of xv daies, and than kil them: and having cast away the head, the feete, and the guttes, with all the garbage, distill them in a limbecke ..." - Girolamo Ruscelli (translated by W. Warde), The Secretes of the Reverende Maister Alexis of Piemount, 1558

About the Word:

Garbage is hardly the only food-related word to have taken on a meaning that is far afield from what it once was. Meat formerly was used to refer to food of any kind, and not just to the flesh of an animal. Also liquor was once used to refer to liquid of any sort, rather than to a substance that is productive of hangovers.

Original Definition:

lechery, lust

Example:

"What? shall we live like beasts promiscuously, Without distinction in foule luxurie?" - Juvenal (Translated by William Barkstead), That Which Seemes Best is Worst, 1617

About the Word:

The current meaning of luxury carries a far more positive connotation today than it did when it first entered the language (a process that linguists refer to as amelioration).

Luxurious likewise had a more negative meaning when it first entered the language ('of, relating to, or expressive of especially unrestrained gratification of the senses').

However luxuriant originally meant 'productive,' and luxuriate once meant 'to grow profusely'.

Original Definition:

a ceremony attending the entering of Rome by a general who had won a victory of less importance than that for which a triumph was granted

Example:

"In ancient Rome an ovation was an inferior triumph accorded to victors in minor war or unimportant battle.... An enthusiastic demonstration in honor of an American civilian is nothing like that, and should not be called by its name." - Ambrose Bierce, Write It Right, 1909

About the Word:

Some people are of the opinion that the word decimate should properly only be used to refer to a punishment or event in which every tenth person is killed, since that is how the word was used by the ancient Romans.

Strangely enough, very few of these people likewise insist that ovation should be held to the same standard.

And there are other English words that are descended from Latin words of greatly different meaning: century once referred to 'a subdivision of the Roman legion,' and libertine in ancient Rome was used to refer to a freed slave.

Original Definition:

democracy as a principle or a form of government

Example:

"For conceiving that the Prince my Father had usurped an Authority which did not belong unto him, and desiring to reduce the Government into a Popularity, and to prevent his Successors from raigning after him, see how they argued the matter amongst themselves." - Madeleine de Scudéry (translated by F.G.), Artamenes, 1653

About the Word:

While the more cynical among us might argue that our current system of government is still largely based on popularity, it is a popularity that is a bit different from the original meaning of the word.

Popularity has been in use since at least 1546, the year in which the Bishop of Winchester used it in a letter to Lord Paget, writing of 'an inclination they have to a popularity'. The letter is concerned with grave political matters of the time, and not with who is the most liked in the schoolyard.

Original Definition:

of, relating to, or marked by illusion, conjuring, or trickery

Example:

"That strumpet, that inchantresse, ... has stolne faire Truths attire, Her crowne, her sweet songs, counterfets her voyce, And by prestigious tricks in sorcerie, Ha's raiz'd a base impostor like Truths father." - Thomas Dekker, The Whore of Babylon, 1607

About the Word:

Prestigious and prestige both come to English from the Latin word praestigiae, which meant 'conjuror's tricks.'

It's not so difficult to see the connection there when bearing in mind that the word prestidigitation ('sleight of hand') has largely retained its original meaning.

Prestigious did not come to convey renown until the beginning of the 20th century.

Secretary
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Original Definition:

one entrusted with the secrets or confidences of a superior

Example:

"She writ to him discreetly the thoughts of her friend, leting him understand that she was the secretary; that she would serve him in all honest things he could desire." - Francisco de Quintana, The History of Don Fenise, 1651

About the Word:

Many other words that have been formed through the addition of -ary (which comes from the Latin root -arius, meaning 'from') have managed to keep their roots and suffixes neatly tied together: beneficiary, constabulary, and planetary.

So it seems rather obvious, when looking at a word such as secretary, that its original meaning had something to do with secrets. Yet somewhere along the way the word slipped free of its moorings and took on a not terribly secret meaning.




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