What Do Words Mean?

February 24, 2017

There is a reason language is an art. It’s ever-evolving along with our changing world.

Today, perhaps more than ever, it has become increasingly difficult to unpack a clear message from the way some people speak. An official statement, or a simple 140 characters, can be interpreted differently each day by five people arguing on the television. Aren’t we all speaking the same language?

Apparently not — so what’s the deal? This isn’t a new phenomenon. For centuries, social change, cultural events and even famous icons have been morphing words and phrases to fit the needs of the time. Between the 1860s and early 1900s, what was defined as “Republican” rhetoric versus “Democratic” basically swapped. Politicians and celebrities are butchering the meaning of “humble” to get people to like them. Women have turned a traditionally derogatory term into a movement of empowerment. In fact, the Oxford dictionary is updated quarterly, and around 500 new words were added last quarter including, “YouTuber,” “paddleboarding,” “biatch” and “brunchtime.” New inventions, social movements (Millennials who brunch!) and pop culture are constantly defining new words and meanings.

This makes one thing very clear: How we communicate, specifically our choice of words, should not be taken lightly. Have you ever been driven into a panic because of a confusing email? One misread text can make your mother call the police, or one misinterpreted news piece could bring the country of Sweden to its knees.

To see this in action, I did a little research of my own and tapped people in my life for their point of view on specific words and their meanings. From family members in their late ’40s and ’50s (with whom, alas, I have difficulties communicating with at times), to a 6- and an 8-year-old, see below for some of the most interesting words (IMO) that have been adapted across generations:


Silly started out as Old English sælig, “happy, blissful, fortunate.” Today, it’s more commonly used to mean:

  • “Being goofy” and “goofing around.” (My mom, 52, and Saunie, 8 ½ )
  • Or as a 6-year-old would put it, “I’M SILLY!” (Cece, 6 ½ )


This word first meant “sweetheart” for both genders. Today, not so much. There is a rare consensus about its meaning no matter what your age or when you grew up. Most know “bully” as a person with low self-esteem that picks on people to feel better about being scum.” (My uncle, 49). 


I don’t know about you, but I no longer think of the freshwater fish with whiskers. My parents still do, and yet they are at least slightly aware that the Internet has turned it into something that confuses them.

  • “Although my first thought is to dip it in cornbread and fry it, I know it also has a more modern meaning. Something about ‘bait-and-switch’ relationships and not showing the real you?” (My mom, 52).


My dad still thinks trolls are little dolls. So do the kids too young for Twitter thanks to this movie. Unfortunately, most of us alive today know all too well it will never be the same:

  • An internet commenter, often anonymous, who wants to cause trouble by posting on controversial (or even not controversial) posts to create drama.  See ‘nincompoop.’” (My mom, 52).


How the word “ghost” turned into a verb is truly the fault of Millennials. Although its origin has many theories, I truly believe Tinder and online dating brought this new verb to presumed dictionary status. The generations before and after just don’t quite get it.

  • “Following someone cute through the mall.” (My uncle, 49)
  • “Pranking” (Saunie, 8)
  • “A Ghost” (Thanks, Dad).


If you’re using this word today, you are not talking about your candle. Again, truly an Internet-era term. Let’s see what the other generations thought:

  • “Drunk or high” (My dad, 56)
  • “Intoxicated, but not falling-down drunk. They are still feeling pretty good.” (My mom, 52)
  • “I can’t describe it…it’s like ‘this party is legit.’” (10 points for the 8-year-old! I want to be at her parties.) 


From my research, only the Millennials know GOAT refers to this:


Not this: