Take the 2-minute tour ×
English Language & Usage Stack Exchange is a question and answer site for linguists, etymologists, and serious English language enthusiasts. It's 100% free, no registration required.

In any living language the change in meanings of the words and phrases is a natural phenomenon. But sometimes this change is very essential and a certain word or phrase loses its original meaning during the time and accepts a new meaning in the opposite direction. My question is about such idioms in English languages.

Question: Is there any word/phrase/idiom/sentence in English language which was offensive (respectful) in the past and is respectful (offensive) nowadays? Please introduce some references for the offensive/respectful usage of each word/phrase/idiom/sentence in the texts.

share|improve this question

closed as too broad by Bradd Szonye, RegDwigнt Nov 25 '13 at 9:56

There are either too many possible answers, or good answers would be too long for this format. Please add details to narrow the answer set or to isolate an issue that can be answered in a few paragraphs. If this question can be reworded to fit the rules in the help center, please edit the question.

This kind of a broad question. There's the euphemism treadmill where there are many words that start off as euphemisms for rude things but eventually by association become rude themselves, e.g. toilet (in AmE). Some go the other direction like 'dirt'. –  Mitch Nov 24 '13 at 17:36
@Mitch: You introduced very interesting words. Please give me more explanations about them. –  Saint Georg Nov 24 '13 at 17:40
@Mitch toilet is an interesting case as a class-marker, considered rude below a certain status, and acceptable above, and so avoided by people trying to "talk posh" but not by those they are trying to emulate. –  Jon Hanna Nov 25 '13 at 12:43
@JonHanna: not in my experience in the US (as a native AmE speaker). One 'goes to the bathroom' in most any register (unless you idiosyncratically got the men's, head, powder room, etc. Unless you're cleaning it. Then it's toilets all the way. In the US, there's no 'posh' standard, –  Mitch Nov 25 '13 at 12:57
@Mitch it's not really true of en-GB either any more, but the use of lavatory to avoid toilet was a classic "non-U" marker. Ironically, so was posh; posh people never say "posh". –  Jon Hanna Nov 25 '13 at 13:03

1 Answer 1

There are probably many, and perhaps many better than these, but to get the ball rolling:

Gay is a word that has clearly changed significantly in its usage in living memory. It was once used as a clearly positive description, however since as early as the 1940's changed in its definition and later was used with very offensive intent. Perhaps the tables are now changing, and it is again being used with pride (pun intended).

Spastic is another word that has also changed in living memory, and is now commonly used as a derogatory term or insult, resulting in changes of behaviour for some.

Yankee is reputed to have started out as an insult, and some people would now see this as a positive tag. This possibly also relates closely to this question.

share|improve this answer
Really good examples.Thank you very much. –  Saint Georg Nov 25 '13 at 5:05
More like the 1640s than the 1940s, though to call someone gay in that sense then meant you were saying they were sexually immoral, but not necessarily homosexual. That sense coexisted with gay as in "pleasant, happy* for a long time. The 1940s if anything mark the beginning of it as a morally neutral term for homosexuals, as that is when it began to be used in psychological writing, having come into it from the slang of the gay community itself. –  Jon Hanna Nov 25 '13 at 12:42

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.