Words That Changed Their Meanings

The following is an article from Uncle John's Bathroom Reader Golden Plunger Awards By most estimates, the English language includes about one million words, yet native speakers regularly use only about 5,000. And they don't always get the ones they do use correct. Like all languages, English is constantly changing - new words are added, old words are phased out, and new word combinations are formed all the time. But the following examples of language changes cause trouble for people who like to use their words correctly because these words and phrases have pretty much lost their original meanings.

Beg The Question

If an event or happening raises a question for someone it's almost certain he or she will say, "This begs the question ..." But it doesn't. Begging the question is a verbal trick speakers use to avoid a question, not bring one up. The original definition of begging the question meant to assume that what is being questioned had already been proven to be true, so the answer sidestepped the thing in question. Say you were asked a question that just required a simple yes or no answer. But instead of saying yes, you answer with a statement that assumes the thing in question is already true. That's begging the question. For example, if the question is, "Senator, will this new crime bill be effective?" and he or she answers with a statement that doesn't answer it - "I've been fighting crime my entire career, and this crime bill is the latest example of that" - then the speaker has begged the question. It's a common practice in formal debate, and it's especially prevalent in politics. In the example above, the speaker is acting as though the crime bill is definitely effective, even though he or she never answered the basic question with a yes or no. Assuming the question is true is not evidence that it is. From that, beg the question evolved in the language to mean that the statement invites another obvious question. Anytime you run verbal circles around the question without answering it can be called begging the question in this sense (although strict grammarians frown upon it; they like to keep the original meaning).


It's hard to believe that such a simple word hides such a horrific history. The original definition of "decimate" was "to kill one in ten." The brutal practice was used by the Roman army beginning around the 5th century B.C. and was implemented as a way to inspire fear and loyalty. Lots were drawn, and one out of every 10 soldiers would be killed - by their own comrades. If one member of a squad acted up, anybody could pay the ultimate price. Captured armies often fell victim to this practice as well. Today, "decimate" has lost that meaning, but some grammarians still like to preserve it ... at least in the sense of "to reduce by 10 percent." The "dec" prefix means "ten" - it's the same Latin root that gives us decade, for example. So to use "decimate" to mean just "destroy" contradicts the meaning of that prefix. (Note: Language snobs really get up in arms when someone says "totally decimate." Totally reduce by ten? We don't get it, either.)

Could Care Less

This is an easy mistake to make. The correct phrase, of course, is "couldn't care less" - as in, "I don't care at all, so it wouldn't be possible for me to care any less about this." But over the years, that's morphed into a new phrase (with the same meaning), and even though the Harper Dictionary of Contemporary Usage criticized the change in 1975, saying it was "an ignorant debasement of language," "could care less" seems to be around to stay. Language historian say "couldn't care less" was originally a British phrase that became popular in the Untied States in the 1950s. "Could care less" appeared about a decade later. No one knows exactly why the incorrect form came into being, since it doesn't make sense. But the phrase has stuck, and a lot of grammarians care very much that it's not being used correctly. (Regular people, of course, couldn't care less.)

Card Sharp

No, that's not a misspelling. Sure it sounds weird to the ear, but people who know the term's history and meaning prefer the original. "Card sharp" first appeared in the 1880s and meant a card player who tricked or scammed others. "Card shark" appeared much later, in the 1940s. Many people assume that the mix-up simply comes from speakers who either thought "shark" sounded better or misheard the word originally. But that may not be the case. Linguists have traced the history of both "sharp" and "shark" to their original usages, and though it doesn't appear that either word derived from the other, there are a lot of similarities in meaning. "Shark" comes from a 17th-century German word schurke, which meant "someone who cheats." "Sharping" came about around the same time and meant "swindling or cheating." The words "loan shark" and "sharp practice" come from these words as well. So technically, "card shark" could be correct. But because "card sharp" appeared first, many linguists want to preserve it. Whether they'll succeed is anyone's guess, but it's a sharp point of contention for many.

Spit and Image

If you think you're the spitting image of your parents, you're forgiven. People have been messing this one up for decades. "Spit and image" was the original term, used from about 1825 on. The Oxford English Dictionary defined it as "the very spit of, the exact image, likeness, or counterpart of." "Spitting image" came about some 80 years later and was followed by a few other variations, including "spitten image" and "splitting image" (neither of which really caught on). In this case, "spitting image" has overtaken the use of "spit and image" for most English speakers. But when you're spitting out this phrase, take a moment to remember its original use and think about the image you're trying to project.


Few words cause as much confusion or are used incorrectly as often as "ironic." Not that it's hard to understand why - the definition is not simple: "a pretense of ignorance and of willingness to learn from another assumed in order to make the other's false conceptions conspicuous by adroit questioning ... the use of words to express something other than and especially the opposite of the literal meaning." What? In 1996, Alanis Morissette wrote an entire song titled "Ironic," which consistently used the word incorrectly. And even the people who are supposed to know what it means get it wrong. The American Heritage Dictionary gave the word "irony" to its distinguished panel of experts (the ones who help ensure the accuracy of all the words the dictionary defines) and asked them if either of the following sentences used the word correctly:
1. "In 1969, Susie moved from Ithaca to California, where she met her husband-to-be, who, ironically, also came from upstate New York." Seventy-eight percent of the panel's members agreed that this was an incorrect use of the word. 2. "Ironically, even as the government was fulminating against American policy, American jeans and videocassettes were the hottest items in the stalls of the market." In contrast, though, 73 percent agreed that this sentence used it properly.
How "ironic" came to be defined as "coincidence" is anybody's guess, but for our purposes, we like to refer to the following quote from the 1994 film Reality Bites. When Ethan Hawke's character is asked to define "ironic," he says, "It's when the actual meaning is the complete opposite of the literal meaning." Thank goodness for Hollywood.
The article above was reprinted with permission from Uncle John's Bathroom Reader Golden Plunger Awards Forget the Oscars and the Grammys - the awards committee at the Bathroom Readers' Institute is handing out its own honors... the highly coveted Golden Plungers. We've scoured the globe to bring you the people, places, and events most worthy of throne-room recognition. Since 1988, the Bathroom Reader Institute had published a series of popular books containing irresistible bits of trivia and obscure yet fascinating facts. If you like Neatorama, you'll love the Bathroom Reader Institute's books - go ahead and check 'em out!

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"square' as in a square meal ,used to mean honest and fair..that was changed into meaning "outdated and naive"..remember the world war 2 victory sign .well during the nam war that meant peace at any price!!!!! Gay of course used to mean a fun person ,that was changed into same sex preference. A sloppy person who never bathed or read the papers and knew how to use critical reasoning used to be called a beatnik..that was changed into ..'hippy' a person with it..cool..oh and that word used to mean temperature in a ice box..that was later meant to mean a person who was with it and aware..go figure..now there goes Betty Grable again....Nino
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Very nice listing - but I challenge on "could care less" - the derived form makes perfect sense, at least in conversation - it's an ironic statement, more specifically that subset of irony known as sarcasm (where the irony is indicated by a tone of of voice that declares that the speaker means the opposite of what is being said).

Since "I couldn't care less" is generally a term used to denigrate the subject under discussion, it's sarcastic form carries more impact (sarcasm is generally held as rudeness, so is not caring for the topic). Essentially, the sarcasm reinforces the lack of concern being indicated.
Of course, in written language, sarcasm is much harder to pick up - generally authors rely on the phrase being so well known that the reader will immediately attach the sarcastic tone without it having to be pointed out. In prose the descriptive sentence usually following a character quote may contain a verb like "sneered" or "said sarcastically" but in things like letters this is harder to convey - which is why it appears not to make sense.
In short, used as an ironic or sarcastic statement the phrase "I could care less" is in in fact a more meaningful way of conveying that you couldn't care less.
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My pet peeve for misused words is the use of less instead of fewer. The gardisil commercial blasted our psyches with the catch phrase, "one less..." when it should have been "one fewer." I guess girls jumping rope to "one fewer" isn't as memorable. Less should be used when talking about a smaller degree, or extent or frequency...fewer is used when referring to number. Once a mistake goes into a commercial (remember Winston tastes good like a cigarette should?) there is no stopping it from becoming the accepted norm.
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Merriam-Webster's Online Dictionary
Main Entry: 2to·ward
Variant(s): or to·wards \?t?-?rd(z), ?to?(-?)rd(z), t?-?wo?rd(z), ?two?rd(z), ?tw?rd(z)\
Function: preposition
Date: before 12th century
1 : in the direction of
2 a : along a course leading to b : in relation to
3 a : at a point in the direction of : near b : in such a position as to be in the direction of
4 : not long before
5 a : in the way of help or assistance in b : for the partial payment of
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