The casual friends of every day

The meanings and sense of words change, and what can be a normal and serious word, suddenly becomes silly (and silly is a word which has changed and now means something completely different from what it used to), or takes on a whole different meaning… when I was a teacher I made sure I steered clear of the language the students used, a perfectly ordinary word could mean something competently different. Take the word bobbins, a plural of a bobbin, something used in sewing and weaving; in one school I taught at ‘bobbins’ meant something was really good… ‘it were right bobbins‘ – in another school I went to it meant really awful, dreadful, ghastly!

Here are some examples of words which used to mean one thing and now mean another:

  • nice used to mean silly, foolish, or simple… However…
  • …silly used to mean worthy or blessed
  • awful meant worthy or full of awe”
  • a wench was just a small child of either sex
  • a myriad was 10,000 of something
  • naughty meant you had nothing
  • a spinsters was a women who spun, it was an occupation
  • to flirt was to flick or brush something away
  • guy was a name, Guy … the same used to happen to the word ‘John’
  • Hussy: Believe it or not, hussy comes from the word housewife (with several sound changes, clearly) and used to refer to the mistress of a household, not the disreputable woman it refers to today.
  • to quell something was to kill it
  • senile just used to refer to the elderliness of someone
  • meat meant food, not the flesh of an animal

These days the word ‘gay’ has a completely different meaning from its original sense of being happy or bright, which is what it means in this poem by Richard Monckton Milnes, the first Lord Houghton:


They seem’d, to those who saw them meet,
The casual friends of every day;
Her smile was undisturb’d and sweet,
His courtesy was free and gay.

But yet if one the other’s name
In some unguarded moment heard,
The heart you thought so calm and tame
Would struggle like a captured bird

And letters of mere formal phrase
Were blister’d with repeated tears,
And this was not the work of days,
But had gone on for years and years!

Alas, that love was not too strong
For maiden shame and manly pride!
Alas, that they delay’d so long
The goal of mutual bliss beside!

Yet what no chance could then reveal,
And neither would be first to own,
Let fate and courage now conceal,
When truth could bring remorse alone


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