Lucy Mangan ("Every little helps", The Guardian, 9/13/2008), is the troubled child of a mixed marriage:
As a family, we have few abstract points of contention. Generally, we like to keep arguments specific and concrete - who ate the last peppermint cream, who lost the door keys, who killed Grandma, that kind of thing. But let a grammatical solecism rear its ugly head and the dinner table is awash with bloodlust. My mother, as you might expect from a woman who used to break my fingers for putting our beige napkins down "the wrong way", believes that the rules of grammar are semi-divine and wholly immutable. A split infinitive, "different to" or "none are": these are the things that try her soul, at least if there aren't any inverted napkins around.
Dad, meanwhile, embraces "mistakes" as part of the natural evolution of language. Presented with an empurpled wife insisting that "to aggravate" means "to make worse", not "to annoy", he will proclaim that "effete" once meant "having given birth". Each seeks my support. Bending my head to my plate, I feel like the trembling victim of a soon-to-be-broken home.
Although my sympathies are generally with Lucy's dad, I'll venture to disagree with his (reported) take on effete.
Or at least to add to it. It's true that effete, as the OED explains, comes from Latin effetus "that has brought forth young, hence worn out by bearing, exhausted, from ex "out" + fetus "breeding". And it's also true that the sense "effeminate" is quite recent.
But according to the OED, the earliest meaning in English was not "having given birth", but rather "Of animals: That has ceased to bring forth offspring". The progression was then "transf. Of material substances: That has lost its special quality or virtue; exhausted, worn out"; and then "Of strength, vital power: Spent, worn out"; and finally "fig. Of persons in an intellectual sense, of systems, etc.: That has exhausted its vigour and energy; incapable of efficient action. Also, of persons: weak, ineffectual; degenerate. More recently, effeminate".
The earliest OED citation that clearly means "effeminate" rather than "weak, ineffectual; degenerate" seems to be from 1981, though it's often hard to be sure in particular cases whether an insult to women and male homosexuals was intended or not. Thus a modern reader may well interpret effete in this sentence
1905 BARONESS ORCZY Scarlet Pimpernel (1906) xvi. 147 Those happy days of courtship, before he had become the lazy nincompoop, the effete fop, whose life seemed spent in card and supper rooms.
to mean "effeminate", though for Baroness Orczy it probably just meant "That has exhausted its vigour and energy; incapable of efficient action".
Presumably the change in this word's meaning from "exhausted and ineffectual" to "effeminate" — whether it's taken place over a century or over a few decades — is really a kind of imperceptible slow-motion malapropism, driven by the similarity in sound and the overlap in sense.