Words have developed and changed their meaning over the centuries, some for the better and some for the worst. An intriguing example of what the linguists term pejoration or a deterioration of a meaning is the word gaudy which today means something bright and showy and, probably, tasteless. But it owes its origin to the Latin noun gaudium which means joy and was used in Middle English as a synonym for praying which was seen as a form of rejoicing.
Before the reformation rosaries were in common use as an aid to prayer – the phrase telling one’s beads was saying your prayers – and by the 14th century gaudi had the meaning of a large ornamental bead in a rosary. By the 1520s gaudi had developed negative connotations and was used in contexts suggestive of being full of trickery. By the 1580s the two ideas had been conflated into one – a colourful, perhaps over the top piece of jewellery which perhaps wasn’t all that it cracked up to be – and gaudy was on the road to adopting its modern meaning.
An example of a word going the other way or as the linguists call it ameliorating is lord. Its roots are from the old English word hlafweard which roughly translates as keeper of the bread and, consequently, the head of the household or as we would now term the person, the breadwinner. Over time the word shortened, firstly to hlaford and then by the 13th century to lord. The word began its ascent up the social ranks becoming indicative of power and status rather than just being the head of the family unit. Its final ascension came when it was used as a direct translation of Dominus, the Roman noun used in religious tracts to denote God.
Interestingly, lady derives from the Old English hlaefdige which meant kneader of the bread and came to be associated with the woman of the household. By the 13th century, though, it had come to mean a woman of superior position in society. We use the word spinster to denote an unmarried woman but in the middle 14th century it meant a spinner of thread. It is likely that it was initially a term used to describe any spinner, irrespective of sex, because the more specific noun spinstress developed to denote a female spinner.
By the early 17th century, though, the word had lost its specific association with spinning and had become a portmanteau description for an unmarried woman as John Minsheu revealed in his definition of 1617, “Spinster, a terme or an addition in our common law, onely added in Obligations, Evidences and Writings unto maids unmarried”. Presumably, spinning was seen as an occupation that women pursued until they got married.
In the 13th century a wench was a term given to a young woman particularly if she was unmarried but there was nothing overtly pejorative in its usage. It was also used to denote a female infant from the Old English wencel which probably owed its origins to the Norse vakr which conflated the idea of a child and weakness. But by the mid 14th century there was a pejorative tone coming into its usage and it was becoming a description synonymous with a concubine or strumpet. That it was a term now associated with the lower orders became apparent in the late 14th century when it was defined as a “serving-maid, bondwoman, young woman of a humble class”. Today, we associate the word with a young friendly woman with easy morals.