Etymology: The Evolution of Words

It’s interesting to think about how language evolves over time. Words that originally had one meaning now have a new meaning entirely. New words have even been invented (selfies and twerking, anyone?). It really is astounding, and there’s no stopping it. Language will continue changing with each new generation.

As for our generation, there are certain words that come to mind that, long ago, meant something else, but now, in certain contexts, have completely new meanings. One of those words I think of off the top of my head is “literally.” A word that, by definition, means true to fact and not exaggerated has, ironically, become a word that is used to exaggerate one’s point:

“This is literally the longest I’ve ever had to wait.” Really? Really? Somehow, I doubt that. (Although, I’ll admit that waiting around for an event to start or sometimes for someone to show up can be extremely tedious. I personally hate waiting. I’m an impatient person.)

Or how about this one: “It was literally the funniest thing I’ve ever seen in my life.” So, with that logic, that means nothing will ever be funnier? Yeah, that makes no sense when you really stop and think about it. Not that we do, which is precisely my point.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not trying to poke fun at people who speak this way. I’m guilty of it, too, I’ll admit it. That’s just the beauty of our vast English language. Colloquial terminology changes the meaning of words.

I’ll name a couple other examples, just for fun. How about “sick?” As in, “Oh, dude, that’s so sick.” It’s become a synonym for awesome. Or what about “mad?” “I’m mad bored.” “There are mad people here.” Mad now means many. Which is kind of funny, actually.

And who knows which words will change next? They’ll always have their original meanings, of course, because the dictionary can’t take them away. That being said, truncated language and slang terms will always be prominent whether we English scholars like it or not.




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