Word meanings change over tiime

In marketing we like “to make no bones about a matter” which means to speak frankly and directly. However, I bet many don’t know this history of some of the most common phrases used today. Knowing the history of our words is important, because how marketers go about messaging can dictate how their customer base views them, and the emotional associations they have with various businesses. Depending on the generation, word meanings can sometimes evoke different feelings or emotions, which, when used correctly, can target buyer personas through “troves” of beautifully worded script and context. Can you “fathom” the ideas?

Here are 10 common words or phrases that have different meanings today than they did in years past:

  1. To Make No Bones About a Matter” – A form of this expression was used as early as 1459, to mean to have no difficulty. It seems evident that the allusion is to the actual occurrence of bones in stews or soup. Soup without bones would offer no difficulty, and accordingly one would have no hesitation in swallowing soup without bones.
  1. Troves” – Most people link ‘treasure’ with trove, but people actually started to use trove by itself to mean a hoard or a valuable find at least as far back as the 1880s. In actuality, this word is a reduction of treasure trove, and can have connotations beyond monetary treasure. Example: “Not only will they probably find it, but, hopefully, they will have the opportunity to share it with a trove of friends and relatives.”
  1. Fathom” – It can be hard to fathom how this verb shifted in meaning from “to encircle with one’s arms” to “to understand after much thought.” Here’s the scoop: One’s outstretched arms can be used as a physical measurement (a fathom), known as a fathom line, that is specifically used to measure the depth of water. Think metaphorically, and fathoming can mean getting to the bottom of either an ocean or a problem.
  1. Myriad” – If you had a myriad of things 600 years ago, it meant that you specifically had 10,000 of them, not just a lot.
  1. Broadcast” – It not just how we spread information. In 1767 “broadcast” meant sowing seeds with a sweeping movement of the hand or a “broad cast”. Its media use began with radio in 1922.
  1. Nice” – A few centuries ago if a gentleman called a lady “nice,” she might not know whether to flutter her fan or slap his face. Nice entered English via Anglo-Norman from classical Latin nescius, meaning ignorant. Then it wandered off every which way. From the 1300s through 1600s it meant silly, foolish, or ignorant. By the 1500s, “nice” took a complete 180 degree turn to mean meticulous, attentive, sharp, making precise distinctions. By the 18th century, it acquired its current (and rather bland) meaning of agreeable and pleasant, but other meanings hung on, just to keep things interesting.
  1. Garble” – Garble originally meant to sort something out – not to mess it up. It comes from a 15th century Anglo-French word “garbeler”, meaning “to sift” and the Arabic “gharbala” which meant sifting and selecting spices. It changed in the 1680s and was instead used to describe mixed up, confused or distorted language.
  1. Awful” – Originally, awful had the meaning of being awe-inspiring (including positive connotations), as well as “worthy of, or commanding profound respect.” It was not a far stretch to then use it also to mean “Causing dread; terrible, dreadful, appalling.” The earliest records of these uses date back to at least 1000 AD. Between 1000 and 1800, the word evolved to the current meaning: “Frightful, very ugly, monstrous;” hence now the word has purely negative connotations.
  2. Desire” – A word, which means ‘to want something very much,’ is another example of shifting meaning. In the Middle Ages, desire was an astronomical term, and meant to gaze at the stars. During the 13th century, in its original sense this word meant “await what the stars will bring,” from the phrase de sidere “from the stars,” from sidus (genitive sideris) “heavenly body, star, constellation”.
  1. Backlog” – Today, it means a reserve or a pile of work you still need to plow through. Before stoves, or even matches, the kitchen fireplace was kept burning around the clock. This was done by placing a huge log, or back log, behind the fire that would keep smoldering once the flames had died down during the night. The embers from the back log could then ignite a new fire in the morning. The phrase “keeping it on the backburner” is also a reference to this original practice with similar, though slightly different connotations as ‘backlog’.

As you can see from these examples, words and their meanings are deep and far more complex than most native English speakers are even aware of. However, when marketing to multiple demographics, some of whom will remember older or specific regional incarnations of our verbiage, it’s important to keep a copy of the Oxford English Dictionary around to reference how our words evolve and why we want to use them in a specific marketing context. Most of marketing involves emotions and relationships, and we want to use language to generate the right ones with the right people.

To learn more about how expert wordsmiths craft effective marketing, contact us and we’ll get started on helping you navigate the twists and turns of language, ‘no bones about it’.