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5 Words That Used to Mean the Exact Opposite

Word games are fun. Everyone loves the classic gag where you offer someone a "Hertz Donut" and when they accept, punch them, because physical violence is the most acceptable way for heterosexual men to express their love for one another. But in regular, day-to-day goings-on, you hope for a little bit more consistency: I don't want to go to a bank to make a "withdrawal," only to find out that the word "bank" now means "experimental flesh-eating bacteria test-subject volunteer sign-up booth."

But it turns out these seemingly random shifts in language happen all the time, and a lot of today's ordinary words used to mean the exact opposite of what they mean now.

#5. A "Harlot" Used to Be a Goofy Guy

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You're probably most familiar with the word "harlot" as the word your dad's mom calls your mom after she's had a few wine coolers. (Unless you never knew your grandparents or your biological parents, in which case I apologize for insulting you with the very first sentence of my article.) For someone my age, using that word is less about insulting someone and more about letting everyone around you know that you attended a couple Romantic Literature classes in college.

As for where it comes from, most people imagine a mythological fairy that would dance out of the woods wearing a veil of rotting flesh and steal an innocent teenage boy's virginity.

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It's the boogeyman an MRA activist will tell his kids about if he ever manages to impregnate someone.

But it used to mean ...

Six hundred years ago, while Geoffrey Chaucer was banging out The Canterbury Tales in the middle of a gambling binge, he used the world "harlot" not to describe the type of lady who enjoys dancing to Def Leppard, but a goofy, somewhat mischievious man, because that's what it meant. Back then harlots were "knaves," "rapscallions," "roustabouts," and other awesome words that you should all start using so it's not just me anymore. So how the hell did this happen?

Turns out we have no one to thank more for our ever-increasing library of synonyms for "slut" than the Bible. In the 15th century, "Harlot" was used to refer to people in the entertainment business, but when the Geneva Bible was published in 1560, the translators had used the word "harlot" in places where the previous Bibles had used "strumpet" or "whore," because the difference between "actor," "prostitute," and "slut" wasn't very important in that context, which can only mean that the Geneva Bible was written by that same drunk grandmother, right after she watched something starring Scarlett Johansson.

Fox Searchlight Pictures

"This scene is disgusting. She should be wearing a bathing suit." -- The Drunk Grandmother Bible

Then the new meaning caught on because, as it turns out, the Bible is pretty influential in some circles.

#4. A "Moot Point" Was Something Really Important That Everyone Needed to Discuss

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In general parlance, something is considered a "moot point" if there's no reason to talk about it anymore. If you're out of pretzels, arguing about who ate the last one is a moot point because obviously you're going to have to go get more. If you're shot in the leg, whether or not you're practicing effective gun safety is a moot point because you need to get to the hospital. If you're sitting in, say, a jail cell in New Jersey on the morning of June 23rd, 2007, exactly who it was that threw a firecracker at a cop, climbed a flag pole, pulled down his pants, and started singing the National Anthem while replacing every third word with fart noises and ruined the family vacation is a moot point ... dad.

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You were like three Estrella Damms away from doing the same thing, you hypocrite.

Basically, if you're still debating a moot point, then you're an idiot who hasn't been able to keep up with the conversation, or a real jerk who won't let something die.

But it used to mean ...

Back when I was your age, a "moot point" was a hypothetical idea created specifically to be talked about, like a thought exercise ("Could Jesus microwave a burrito so hot he himself could not eat it" is probably the mootest point ever). It was mainly used by law students who needed to practice bulletproof logical thinking, and it's why we call a practice court a "moot court" -- it "didn't matter" in the same way that lifting weights doesn't matter: You may not be solving any immediate problems, but you're building up the skills/strength to solve them later, by punching them with your brain! I think my metaphors are getting confused.

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"Just a few more reps, and I'll be able to outwit Apollo Creed!"

The confusion might have come from the phrase "mute court," which -- to be as clear as possible -- means what "moot court" meant by the modern meaning but not the moribund moot one. For a long time, confusing "moot" and "mute" would make lawyers act rude, and sometimes even lewd. They just didn't approve of those intellectual boobs using their jargon so crudely. But then judges started to get it wrong too, and all those pretentious dudes just looked at their boots and cut out the snoot, because the moot/mute mooting was moot.

#3. "Egregious" Used to Mean "Remarkably Good"

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"Egregious" means a noticeable, unforgivable error, most commonly used by people taking advantage of someone else's mistake to show off the fact that they know the word "egregious." It's the coup de grace of any solid comeback, e.g. "Confusing Work of Heart Bear with Sweet Sakura Bear is quite an egregious error in this context."

Nelvana
Aw man, you just got Care Bear burned.

But it used to mean ...

"Egregious" comes from "grex," the Latin word for "flock," and refers to anything that separates itself from a group, whether that's by being unbearably awful or super-duper hella rad. By that definition, the IHOP waiter who screwed up your order and farted in your coffee is just as "egregious" as the one who did a full-on striptease, gave you some bacon to ease your hangover tomorrow, and didn't mind heating up the syrup for your pancakes.

How'd this change happen? No one knows for sure ... but it does have an unsettling implication: that we stopped prioritizing individuality. How often is "standing apart from the flock" (what it literally means) a good thing anymore? Sure, we tell people to be their own person, but we don't actually mean it, because otherwise we wouldn't know what kind of shit to sell them. "Exceptional behavior" started to mean "obeying orders particularly well," and the other use of "egregious" just kinda fell by the wayside. Somewhere along the line, we stopped valuing people who followed their dreams no matter how many people told them not to.

The alternative is that this is a totally meaningless fluke of language and I'm reading way too much into it.

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J.F. Sargent

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