Schizophrenic words

~a column by Colleen O’Brien

Somebody asked me if I thought I was a crone yet.

I said, No, but I was looking forward to it.

In the “new feminism,” the word has taken on a more tolerant flavor – wise older woman – escaping in most civil living rooms from its centuries-long diss as ugly, mean, hag, hell-hag, evildoer, worker of iniquity, wicked, gossip, virago, shrew, harpy, ogress, beldam, old ewe, the bad mother of nightmares.

Whew. That’s way too many negative synonyms for a mere grandma, especially when the males her age get to be called silver fox.

The way words change over the years is often interesting because so very often, as with crone, a word will take on a schizophrenic behavior and latch on to the very opposite meaning. In the 1980s, my kids called everything that was good, bad. “That Porsche is so bad.”

In the 16th century the word egregious meant distinguished; then it changed to mean over-the-top awful.

Gay used to mean joyous; now it means homosexual.

Cell used to mean jail. Now it usually means a walk-around phone (electronic device that is like a jailer).

Cute came from acute – shrewd. Now it means a pretty, usually young, person.

Fantastic used to mean unrestrained imagination, possibly bizarre (think of Disney’s 1940 film“Fantasia”); now it means great! (with an exclamation mark).

Awful originally meant something full of awe (a hymn title I read once was “Hark I Heard an Awful Voice”). Now it means something bad . . . not as in good, (see above), but as in not good.

Hooker used to mean an old, clumsy boat; now it means a prostitute. (How did that happen?)

Moll used to be a nickname for Mary; then it became a gangster’s girlfriend.

Demagogue once meant popular leader; now it means a politician who panders to emotions and prejudice.

Bully used to mean darling; now it means someone who harasses someone weaker.

Do you have any schizophrenic words in your vocabulary?

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