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Ever changing language - a guest post from Emma

Emma Nelson | 02nd June 2015

Did you know that 'hello' was originally an exclamation of surprise

One of the amazing things about language is that it is always changing, new words are introduced into everyday speech all the time. There are new editions to the Oxford Dictionary every quarter, you can read details about them on the Oxford Dictionary blog. The additions in December 2014 included duck face, lolcat and permadeath – all nods to the increasingly important roles that social media and gaming play in the language we use.

It isn’t just new words that are changing though, some words that have been around for hundreds of years now mean something completely different. The history of words is something that fascinates me and I find I am always trying to keep up with the latest – which is a feat in itself.

This fantastic list from the Collins Dictionary includes changes to words such as ‘broadcast’ which was originally an agricultural term meaning to sow seeds with a wide sweeping movement. Nobody would associate it with anything other than news in 2015.

Did you know that ‘awful’ was originally associated with feelings of awe, fright and terror – not exactly what you mean when you describe ‘an awful cup of coffee from the machine’. You can read the complete list here.

This extract from Susie Dent’s book ‘What made the Crocodile Cry?’ offers nominations for the strangest change in meaning that any word has undergone. Nominees include ‘nervous’ which used to mean ‘strong and vigorous’ and ‘nice’ which in the 14th century meant ‘foolish or silly’.

Of course, many of the reasons for these changes in meaning are due to influences from other languages and cultures. Do you know that the word ‘avatar’ is actually a Sanskrit word used to describe a deity in human or animal form?

Technological, but also slang words are amongst the groups of fastest-changing words. There appears to be a trend for negative words to be used in a positive way in slang – think of ‘wicked’ ‘sick’ or ‘bad’ - this is sure to confuse etymologists in a hundred years’ time!

In general I am happy that language is an ever-developing entity, and most of the time I enjoy discovering the new twists and turns that it takes, just don’t get me started on the recent trend of changing the use of the word ‘literally’! See this article from the Guardian for more details, but beware, if you’re anything like me, your blood will be boiling by the end of the first paragraph!

Emma Nelson is a Project Manager here at Conversis. Her favourite projects include translations for interactive apps and videos and she loves discovering new words and languages. In her spare time she runs marathons and bakes a mean spiced rhubarb cake.