Weird Words – assassins, dogs and buxom bimbos

dog-612878_960_720As a freelance copywriter, I sometimes have to research the meanings of words to check that I’m using them in the right context. What’s interesting is that occasionally I find that certain words used to mean something else entirely.

How many words have we been getting wrong for so long that they’re now right?

Doped up “assassins”

When I think of an assassin, I see a mean-looking, professional, well-groomed, suited and booted man with a silencer. What I don’t see is a stoner.

And yet “assassin” comes from the Arabic word for “hashish user”. During the Crusades, a fanatical Muslim sect would eat hashish and get stoned before attacking an enemy.

Dog Swap

The general word for man’s best friend used to be “hound”. A “dog” was a specific and powerful breed of hound. For some inexplicable reason, the two words suddenly swapped meanings in the 16th century. Now “dog” is the general word, while “hound” is used to describe a hunting dog!

Tremendous and awful

Teacher: “Your work today was tremendous.”
Student: “Oh no, really? That bad?”
Teacher: “But your homework was awful.”
Student: “Oh good, I’m glad!”

The word “tremendous” comes from “tremble”. It used to mean something terrible. Something to be feared and dreaded and trembled at. However, in the 1800s, people started using it in a hyperbolic sense to mean “fantastic or extraordinarily great”. It’s a bit like what’s happened to the word “wicked”. Lots of people use this to describe something great, even though the official meaning is “evil or morally wrong”. (Which begs the question: how long before “wicked” loses its original meaning?)

Meanwhile the word “awful” has done the exact opposite. It used to mean “inspiring wonder” and “full of awe”. Over the centuries, we’ve turned this meaning on its head.

If I called you a “buxom bimbo”, would you hit me in the face?

Today the word “buxom” means “a plump and large-breasted woman”. Centuries ago “buxom” meant “humble and obedient to God”. Quite a change!

But the semantic evolution of “buxom” isn’t as bizarre as what’s happened to “bimbo” over the last century.

It comes from the word “bambino”, which is Italian for “little child”. “Bimbo” didn’t, in fact, refer to a woman at all. It originally meant “fellow or chap” or “one of the boys”. In the early part of the 20th century, it had come to mean “a stupid man or a contemptible person”. Then, in 1920s America, Variety magazine suddenly used “bimbo” to refer to an immoral woman or “floozy”. This meaning stuck in the 1980s, when the media was using it to refer to women involved in political sex scandals.

What other words can you think of that have changed their meaning over the years?

In case you missed it, have a read of my first Weird Words article, which looked at the grim origins of words like “muscle” and “mortgage”. My second talked about how mistakes become part of the language.

NOTE: You’ll notice that I’ve been publishing fewer copywriting blogs lately. This is thanks to my copywriting and fiction writing busyness having increased significantly since the start of the year. Still, I have now pledged to write one blog every fortnight, so two a month. One blog a month will be a Weird Words article, and the other will be about copywriting.

Happy Monday!

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