Words and Meaning Through Time


If I ever offended any gays with this picture, I completely apologize since this is just a good picture for this post. Besides, it’s an old-timey advertisement for cigarettes (probably in Britain) and not meant to offend any one. The word “fag” as the short form of an offensive homophobic slur is a more recent development.

While I discussed how certain sayings don’t always translate well in different cultures, in this post I will devote to certain words and their acquired meanings through time particularly in English, especially those with certain unsavory NSFW connotations attached since many of them are fun to trace. Though many words have lasted for centuries, some of them could be considered offensive in one generation while totally harmless the next and vice versa. Misplaced context might incite in giggles, shock, or a “Huh?” followed by “Oh, okay.” Others may have certain dirty little etymologies. So without further adieu, let me show you the amusing little way words have changed meaning through time.

1. Gay- we all know that its present meaning refers to someone who’s of homosexual orientation but this definition dates to the 1930s and before then was only used in gay and theatrical subcultures, at one time it was described as “happy, carefree, joyful” but this was only dating to the late 1800s and was used only among New York criminals before that, it’s original meaning is actually prostitute (and yes, it was used in 1900 to describe a gay male prostitute but only briefly before it started meaning homosexuals in general.)

2. Queer- of course, this is now seen as a slur directed against gay people though it’s the “Q” in the LGBTQ community and perhaps used among themselves (like how blacks use the N-word). Before then, it meant “strange, odd.”

3. Idiot, Moron, Imbecile- these started as clinical terms to describe someone as dumber than Forrest Gump. As they fell into the general insult terms of today they were replaced by a kinder, gentler term: “retarded.”

4. Retarded- a former clinical term once used as a political correctness measure to describe someone who’s mentally handicapped, has nowadays evolved to the worst possible word to describe a person with this condition that it’s now almost considered hate speech.

5. Lesbian- before it became to mean a woman with a homosexual orientation  due to is association with the ancient Greek poet Sappho as well as her sexual behavior, it just meant “someone from Lesbos.” Actually anything associated with Sappho will be associated with lesbianism because she’s known more for that than her own poetry, sad to say.

6. Making Love- now a more discreet euphemism for sexual intercourse, this has meant everything romance and courtship to making out and PDA.

7. Faggot- once meant a bundle of sticks tied together and used for a fire before it became a homophobic slur. How it came to be a anti-gay slur, no one knows.

8. Weird- before it meant “sort of generally eccentric,” its original definitions were “scary” or “supernatural.”

9. Shag- once meant a tobacco product, now just means sex.

10. Boner- originally meant “embarrassing and/or major blunder” now it’s just something old guys get for four hours after taking Viagra.

11. Violent- at onetime this was defined as “overly emotional” yet we still associated with “blood, guts, killing, as well as psychological and bodily harm.”

12. Straight- though still means “totally linear” or “less funny guy in a comedy act” it also used to denote “law-abiding” and “clean,” now it means “heterosexual.”

13. High- though it still means “upward” it also used to mean “happy” before it obtained its current definition “in a drug influenced haze.”

14. Boob, Boobie- used to mean “dummy” before it took on it’s current definition of “breast” in the 1970s.

15. Hung- when used as an adjective, it used to be “hungover,” “executed through strangulation,” or “lynched.” Now it just means something sexual.

16. Glory Hole- once meant “a mineral rich trench pit.” Now it’s something else entirely.

17. Pleasure- has a lot of multiple meanings like “getting enjoyment out of doing something,” or “pleased.” Now it’s almost always used in a sexual context.

18. Ecstasy- used to mean “happiness” or “pleasure,” now refers to an illegal recreational drug.

19. Molest- once meant “disturb” or “bothered” now used as a term referring to unwanted sexual contact, particularly with a minor.

20. Fondle- used to refer to innocent or affectionate touching, now it pertains to touching in a sexual or erotic context.

21. Tranny- in British slang it was “transistor radio” while in American slang it was, “automobile transition.” Today it refers to either “transgender” or “transvestite.”

22. Fetish- back in the day it meant something like “totem object associated with a spirit.” Nowadays it refers to an erotic fixation to something that shouldn’t be.

23. Inter-Sexual, Bisexual- both used to mean “unisex,” now the former describes a “hermaphrodite” while the other just pertains someone who “goes both ways” in sexual orientation. (Bisexual has also meant “hermaphrodite” as well.)

24. Courtesan- once meant “courtier” or “court lady” now means “high class prostitute,” “mistress,” or “kept woman.”

25. Intercourse- used to mean “communication between individuals,” now refers to “copulation.”

26. Conversation- once meant “sexual intercourse or intimacy” now pertains to, “social communication involving two or more individuals.” Could also have meant “sexual harassment.”

27. Naughty- once meant “ill-behaved” but though it retains the meaning, it also refers to wayward sexual behavior.

28. Fanny- in more innocent times was a nickname for Frances. Now refers to “rear end” in the US and “female genitalia” in the UK and Australia.

29. Knock Up- at an earlier time it meant “to wake up” (by knocking on the door). Nowadays “to impregnate.”

30. Come Out- in olden days “to be considered an adult who frequents social gatherings” particularly to young women when it came to finding a husband. Now it means “to acknowledge one’s homosexuality to the world.”

31. Titillate- in the early days it might have meant “to tickle” but now means “to excite sexual arousal.”

32. Pussy- though originally used in reference to a cat, can also be used today in referring to either “cowardice” or “female genitalia.” (The latter part usage goes way back since there’s a 1930s song called “My Girl’s Pussy” and I don’t think the guy’s talking about a cat here.)

33. Ejaculate- originally meant “to exclaim or interject” now means something a guy does during sexual intercourse.

34. Abstinence- usually has retained it’s original meaning “to refrain from” but while it was originally used to give up alcohol it now pertains to refraining from sexual intercourse.

35. Cute- used to mean “shrewd and perceptive” but now means “adorable.”

36. Diddle- at one time it meant “to swindle” or “to waste time over trifling.” Can now be a vulgar term “To copulate.”

37. Ass- once meant “donkey” but can be used for “bum” or as a common insult.

38. Thong- originally pertained to strip of leather usually on the sandals, later came to designate a flip flop, and is now referred to as a sleazy and very uncomfortable type of underwear or swimsuit bottom. (Please don’t wear one.)

39. Dick- has always been a nickname for Richard as well as referred to “detective,” but has come to be a slang term for “penis” as well as a common insult term toward a guy.

40. Orgy- originally this described any kind of gross indulgence, but nowadays it mostly describes those of a sexual nature, especially when it refers to groups.

41. Prick- originally meant either “something sharp” or “getting hurt by something sharp” but now could be used in slang for “penis” as well as a common insult term toward a guy.

42. Making Whoopie- in the early 20th century this meant “living luxuriously” now means about the same as “making love” in the dirtiest context.

43. Hypochondria- this word’s meaning has changed dramatically over the years. Though nowadays it refers to unusually excessive concern for one’s health or tendency to fear or imagine having illnesses you don’t actually have but this usage dates back to Victorian times. In ancient Greece, this referred to describe the pain arising from a malarial infection on the liver and spleen. Centuries later its meaning changed to “depression.” And in the mid-20th century was used as a euphemism for other more serious mental illnesses like borderline personality disorder and hebephrenia.

44. Douche- derived from the French word for “shower” and has been described as a cleansing flood of liquid rushing into an orifice. Nowadays, well, it’s a liquid which a woman squirts to wash her privates (and that’s all I’ll say) as well as a common insult term. In usage could mean “an abrupt shock to nerves, emotions, or awareness.”

45. Dyke- originally derived from the Dutch term for “ditch” now means “lesbian.”

46. Yiffer- originally meant “a stout pole used in scaffolding” until the furries came along. (Don’t ask.)

47. Nuclear- used to mean just “central” like in a nucleus before the Atom Bomb, nuclear energy, nuclear weapons, or nuclear disasters.

48. Toilet- used to describe one’s dressing, cleaning, and grooming process. Nowadays it refers to the essential fixture used for relieving oneself which flushes to expel one’s bodily waste.

49. Hump- at one time meant “to exert oneself” or “move swiftly” now is just used as a sex euphemism referring to dog mating rituals. (If you’ve seen what some dogs do with one another, you’ll know what I mean.)

50. Slut- used to refer to a woman who’s “messy looking” now it’s a derogatory term for a sexually promiscuous woman.

51. Sexy- used to describe someone as “obsessed with sex” before it was used to denote someone as “sexually attractive.”

52. Rusty Trombone- while Oscar the Grouch actually meant an oxidized brass instrument, it can also refer to a sex act.

53. Spunk- though it nowadays means “courage, spirit, and determination” it used to be associated with lewd feminine behavior.

54. Fag- once used as a slang term for “cigarette.” Nowadays it’s short for the famous homophobic slur.

55. Vibrator- used to describe a couple of gadgets, one used in a barbershop to foam shaving cream, the other as a massage device to relax, cure headaches etc. Nowadays it’s a gadget that does something completely different.

56. Incontinent- in Shakespeare’s day meant “cease from sexual abstinence.” Now it’s defined as “losing control of one’s bowels.”

57. Butt- once meant “boat.” Nowadays means “rear end” or “end of a cigarette.”

58. Mistress- used to mean the boss’ wife, a female boss, or “Mrs.” in general. Nowadays it refers to the “other woman” in an adulterous tryst.

59. Aroused- used in the past tense to “arise.”  Now it’s just sexual excitement.

60. Condom- was once used as a short form for “condominium.” Now it’s referred to as a contraceptive.

61. Naz, Nazi- in Germany, this was a nickname for Ignaz (Ignatius), until the 1920s.

62. Jap- used to be a nickname for Jasper, but please don’t call anyone this nowadays especially a Japanese person or a Jewish woman. Still, it has a lot more definitions than that.

63. Negro- was once the only decent term to describe blacks until the late 1960s. Now it’s just either a racist or political incorrect term, with the possible exception in Latin America.

64. Spastic- originally it meant “frantic” or “manic” as it still does in the US. But in the UK it’s the equivalent of the R-word.

65. Sod- used to mean “clod of earth” but is now another British insult.

66. Nothing- though usually a harmless word meaning zero, in Shakespeare’s day it referred to a woman’s naughty bits or her virginity. (As in Much Ado About Nothing).

67. Nunnery- let’s just say that when Hamlet told Ophelia “Get thee to a nunnery” he may have meant a different kind of house full of women but not of piety and chastity kind. Also, with Anti-Catholic sentiment growing in England, “nunnery” became an euphemism for “brothel.”

68. Fishmonger- though it could mean “someone who sells fish,” it could also be referred to in Shakespeare’s time as a “pimp.”

69. Dude- though it just means “guy” from the 1960s, it’s older meanings ranged from “city slicker,” “fancy boy,” or “gay blade.” Definitely don’t want to call a guy from the 19th century that because it was considered an insult.

70. Hobby Horse- though it now refers to a child’s plaything, in 1700s, it could either mean “obsession” or “prostitute.”

71. Horns- though it could mean the protuberances of an antelope or reference of sexual arousal (like horny), it could be used as an Elizabethan reference pertaining to a guy getting cheated on signified by a bunny ears gesture.

72. Dork- though since the 1980s it’s a another term for “nerd,” before then it was a slang term for “penis.”

73. Schmuck- its original meaning is “fool” though it allegedly meant “penis.” Of course, it’s probably safe to say it means “dick” which can mean both. Still, you don’t want to call a Jew this.

74. Minion- though we associate with “henchman” it’s originally derived from the French “mignon” referring to certain attractive courtiers of the male specialty.

75. Gunsel- while we may associate it as “gun-wielding hoodlum” but before The Maltese Falcon, it referred to either a young boy kept for sexual purposes or a passive partner in anal intercourse. (And yes, I think one of The Maltese Falcon characters either has or is a gunsel in its original context.)

76. Punk- though it now means someone who’s either a juvenile delinquent, unfriendly homeless kid, or someone from the Punk Rock subculture in much of history it had many unsavory meanings. In Shakespeare’s time, it meant “prostitute, in the 1890s, it was slang to something similar to the original meaning of gunsel.

77. Orchid, Avacado, Testify- all these have a word origin which meant “testicle.” Now these are an exotic flower, a fruit used in guacamole, and to give legal testimony.

78. Funky- though most of us under fifty associate it with the Disco Era or something upbeat you can dance to, it was originally referred to the smell of a woman’s vagina.

79. Rape- though we’re more used to it referring to “sex with an unwilling partner,” there was once a broader context that meant “kidnapping” or “assault.” Could have also meant “kidnapping for sex,” or “marriage” in ancient times whether or not the actual sex was consensual afterwards (though it was probably questionable to say the least.) Also, Alexander Pope’s Rape of the Lock is about a girl getting an unwilling haircut, not actually being raped as we know it. (Seriously it is.)

80. Hooker- though today and for much of history has meant “prostitute” in the old studio wrestling days it meant to describe wrestlers of legitimate wrestling backgrounds so was used as a compliment.

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