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12 Spanish words that have completely changed their meaning over time

Diccionarios de la Real Academia Española Royal Spanish Academy, CC BY-SA 4.0

Words are not only created or unused, but often change their meaning over time, and there are even old words that are recycled with entirely new meanings.

Thanks to the Royal Spanish Academy's New Lexicographic Treasure, we can consult some 70 historical dictionaries online to see what words that are common today meant centuries ago. Stewardess, computer, light bulb, alien ... are some of the terms that our great-great-grandparents used with completely different meanings.

Avión (Aeroplane): in the 17th century it was a bird

'Aeroplanes' have been flying over our country since at least the 17th century, as we see in a clipping from the 1611 dictionary. But before the invention of aeroplanes, it was used for a bird also called a vencejo (swift). Today, in some Spanish regions, "avión" is still a bird, but from another family that also includes golondrinas (swallows).

The funny thing is that the plane that has a beak and the one that does not, although they are called the same, have different etymologies: according to the Real Academia Española (Royal Spanish Academy), the name of the bird comes from the Latin gavia, and the transport one comes from the French avion, and this from the Latin avis.

Azafata (Stewardess): the royal maid

Definition in 1726: Azafata (Stewardess) is a word that has been in Spanish for centuries. The first meaning of it was that of a lady who accompanied the queen, and she facilitated her assistance with a flat basket or tray called an "azafate".

With the advent of aviation, people who provided assistance to travellers (at first only women) were called with this word, while in Latin America they invented a new term: aeromoza (flight attendant).

Formidable (Formidable): something fearsome

Definition of "formidable" in 1732: Today if we say that something is "formidable" we mean that it is great. But the original definition of this word was used for "that which is very fearful and that instils wonder and fear." This still remains the definition in the current dictionary.

Semáforo (Traffic light): the fireflies club

Interestingly, before cars were invented, the word Semáforo (traffic light) already existed. In 1855 it appears in the dictionary as a zoological term: one who collects luminous insects, such as fireflies. It would not be until 1884 when another meaning was incorporated: that of "optical telegraph on the coasts to communicate with ships by means of signals": a beacon. The urban sign meaning would not appear in the RAE dictionary until the 1970 edition.

Ordenador (Computer): the one in charge

In 1706 we already found the word ordenador (computer) in the dictionary. And no, it is not that the agents of The Ministry of Time left a laptop there, but that it was the word to designate one who ordered.

Bombilla (Light Bulb): a straw to drink mate

In the middle of the 19th century, electricity was still not in the houses and there were decades until the electric light bulb was invented, but in 1846 the word bombilla already appears in the Salvá dictionary, since in Latin America it was used (and continues to be used) to name what in Spain we call a pajita (straw). The meaning we all know today would appear in the RAE dictionary in 1914. In the 1927 edition it even came with a drawing.

Alienígena (Alien): the opposite of indigenous

If today we say that we have met an alienígena (alien) in Spanish, we infer an Extraterrestrial being. But this word was created in the early 19th century to mean "foreigner," that is, the opposite of indigenous. Curiously, in [American] English alien still has that meaning, as all those who have learned this language well know with the song by Sting, Englishman in New York: "I'm an alien, I'm a legal alien, I'm an Englishman in New York."

Enchufar (Plug in): join two pipes

Another word that today we associate with electricity and that has a quite different origin. In the dictionary of 1852 they already plug in with the meaning of connecting two pipes.

Probably this meaning was transferred to electrical cables when this technology spread to homes, and it ended up being the main definition. The joining of two pipes is still present in the current definition.

Adolescencia (Adolescence): up to 25 years

In the 1770 dictionary the word adolescence appears with a meaning very similar to the current one, but its duration surprises us: up to 25 years!

Siesta: nap time (even if you don't sleep)

Nowadays, if we say "siesta", we all think about the little sleep after the mid-day meal. But the first meaning of this word was simply that time, whether you sleep, read or play, according to the dictionary in 1739. That is, what today in Spain we call "la hora de la siesta" (siesta time), although in Latin America this meaning is still in use as a period of time.

Asesino (Murderer): the one who betrays a friend

To assassinate has always meant killing someone, but before, Asesino, also had a rather shocking metaphorical meaning: if a friend lied or betrayed you, you could say that he had murdered you. "So-and-so is a murderer, as he has betrayed a friend of his."

Telégrafo (Telegraph): the previous version

The definition from the 1803 dictionary referred to the Optical telegraph, which used a semaphore system to transmit symbols from one hill to another. 

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