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.
A "Harlot" Used to Be a Goofy Guy
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.
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.
"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.
A "Moot Point" Was Something Really Important That Everyone Needed to Discuss
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.
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.
"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.
"Egregious" Used to Mean "Remarkably Good"
"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."
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.
A "Symposium" Used to Be Where You Got Sloshed
The extent of my interactions with the word "symposium" is all those times in college I was tricked into going to an extra class that week. I would see a flyer and think, "Hey, if there's a flyer, there's probably going to be free crackers, store-brand soda, and maybe some cheap liquor." And while I was sometimes right about the cheap liquor (because professors) there was always that hidden fourth ingredient: people talking about things and (this is the worst part) expecting me to talk back and have meaningful opinions. I'm pretty much only good at that if I have a backspace button and the ability to pause for, like, eight minutes while I work out how to fix a sentence.
But it used to mean ...
Like most of our academic vernacular, "symposium" has its roots in Ancient Greek. Unlike most of our academic vernacular, it means kegger. While discussing abstract academic topics wasn't exactly frowned upon (because Greece), it was less "the purpose of the event" and more "one of the many side effects of everyone getting hammered," Greece being basically an entire country of "that guy who wants to launch into a Marxist critique of Anna Karenina whenever he gets past his third beer."
"Phone numbers? Nah, man, the whole thing's a metaphor."
We didn't just change the meaning because "fuck it, it sounds Greek" (though I wouldn't put that past us) -- we changed the meaning because of Plato's Symposium. Even though the text itself is an examination of love (it's where we get the term "Platonic love" and, somewhat indirectly, "no homo") and largely about people getting sloshed together, we have such a cultural pretension-boner for everything Plato ever said that we just couldn't bring ourselves to attach the title of one of his books to "drinking Natty Light and bullshitting," so we just decided to turn it into something intellectual and refined. It's kinda like if future generations referred to study sessions as "De-Textbooking."
"Stop plugging your book!" I'm not! The Cracked editors are mainly responsible for that one. My book has space pirates!
An "Apology" Was a Defense
Apologies are an explanation of a mistake, an effort to seek forgiveness, and anger-fodder for all the pedantic dicks on the Internet who think they can glean a person's sincerity from their word choice. Which makes a lot of sense, because ...
But it used to mean ...
A "defense." When Plato wrote Apology (man, that guy's coming up a lot today), he wasn't saying that Socrates was sorry for what he had done -- he was highlighting a speech in which Socrates claimed he hadn't actually done anything wrong. And while it might seem that that's the exact opposite of what we think an apology is, it fits perfectly with how we respond to them: with an attack (on the Internet, anyway).
Confirming the idea that a good apology can end any argument.
Think about it: Whether or not we forgive someone depends on how well they structure their apology. Sure, we might argue that a more sincere apology actually translates to more sincere feelings, but in the case of apologizing celebrities, politicians, and other public figures, we're dealing with people who fake sincerity professionally. Their career is literally to throw words at us that we'll believe, even if they don't make sense -- and if you've even heard of these people, that's because they're good at it. Do you really think the difference between "I'm sorry you were offended" and "I'm sorry for offending you" has anything to do with what's going on in their head? When politicians are deciding whether or not to apologize, their every syllable is carefully structured to be appealing to the highest percentage of people. Whether or not they're actually sorry has literally nothing to do with their apology -- they're just choosing the best tactic to minimize the amount of damage. And that's what a defense is.
Strip that away, and an apology is a promise to do better. So we should be focusing on the actions that follow an apology rather than the precise wording of it. Not because all celebrity and politician apologies are fake, but because it's literally impossible for us to tell.
Special circumstances excluded.
JF Sargent wants to plug his book again, unless the editors removed his first plug, in which case he wants to plug it for the first time. He can be argued with on Tumblr, Twitter and something called Facebook.
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