Semantic change


Semantics is hard to generate “laws” for

          -words are so tied to culture


Words can change in

·       Sense

·       Associations


Conditions for semantic change (McMahon 176)

-words are what’s called “polysemic”

-have many meanings / cover a whole range of shades of meaning,

-e.g. ME slow-th ‘slowness, laziness’

                   -but can lose some: PDE sloth ‘laziness’

-language is transmitted discontinuously

          -anon ‘presently’ / ‘in a while’ (cf. also OE sona ‘presently’ and presently)

-A says X, B hears Y (OE gebed ‘prayer’ reinterpreted as ‘bead’, via ‘saying/counting one’s)

-the link between the word and the concept/thing is completely arbitrary

          -think about dog in many languages—totally different

          -word or meaning can therefore change with time



Causes of semantic change (McMahon 179)


          -e.g. new technology

                   -e.g.  a car isn’t what it was in Latin

          -e.g. social change

                   -e.g. a king not what he was in OE or ME


-e.g., a particular group uses a word in a new way

                   -e.g. lay use of specialist terminology, e.g. depressed, schizo


-e.g. reinterpretation eg. to say one’s bedes, to see crescent moon not as ‘growing’ but as of a particular shape

-e.g. using euphemisms for taboo subjects


-linguistic a result of grammaticalization: the OE verb willan ‘to desire’ -> future will

-e.g. as a result of clipping or ellipsis: auto(mobile), remote (controller)

Results of semantic change on the sense of the word

·       Narrowing

·       Generalization

·       Shift / transfer (if it’s not that simple!)


Narrowing (or restriction or specialization)

·       word’s meaning becomes more restricted

          -can be used in fewer contexts

          -and gives more information (addition of semantic features)

          -meat “all food” -> “flesh food”

          -early meaning of pigeon “young bird” -> “young dove”

o      often takes place in specific technical contexts

          -e.g. pattern or draw can mean different things in different contexts

o      can result from scientific progress

          -e.g. genetic ‘pertaining to origins’ ->

          -e.g. electric ‘the distinctive property of electric bodies’ ->

o      and from academic specialization, e.g. separation of mental and physical

          -e.g. philosophy ‘knowledge’ ->

          -e.g. science ‘knowledge’ -> ‘natural and physical …’

o      often the result of euphemism (using general word to denote something horrible and precise)

                   -e.g. undertaker “somebody who undertakes something” -> “funeral director”

                   -e.g. one sense of growth -> “cancer”

·       narrowing can leave behind relic forms

                   -e.g. old meaning of fowl survives in compound waterfowl


Generalization (or extension or broadening)

Some social contexts

o      discovery or technological progress

-robin applied to NAm bird,

-torpedo ‘flat electric fish’ -> ‘submarine weapon’

-car ‘wheeled vehicle or conveyance’ -> ‘motorized …’

-trunk ‘chest for travelling’, boot ‘receptacle on a coach for luggage’ -> ‘luggage compartment of a motor vehicle’

-car developed after UK/US split

o      lay or slang use of specialist terms

                   -depression, trauma, schiz out

o      generic use of trademark names

                   -e.g. aspirin, Xerox, kleenex

o      social mobility

                   -aspirational use ultimately broadens terms like lady, gentleman

Some linguistic consequences

o      word can be used in more contexts

                    -but gives less information, loss of semantic features

-e.g. pigeon used to mean “young dove” before generalizing to mean “all dove-like birds”


Changes in meaning may result from perceived (p. 182)

·       Similarity

o      Meaning: metaphor (computer mouse)

o      Form: folk etymology (muskrat isn’t a rat)

·       Contiguity

o      Meaning: metonymy or synecdoche (the White house ‘politicians in it’)

o      Form: “Ellipsis results from the habitual contiguity of two forms; one ultimately drops, and the leftover form stands for the whole thing”

§       Private soldier -> private

§       Gold medal -> gold


Metaphor: two categories of actions or objects resemble each other in at least 1 feature: 1 has a name, the other needs one

·       includes abstract use of concrete terms,

-e.g. grasp, comprehend  ‘physical -> mental apprehension’ (and apprehend the same)

·       lots of exx from science and technology

                   -mouse for computer,

-satellite ‘an attendant upon a person of importance’ -> ‘small or secondary planet which revolves around another one’,

-parasite ‘one who eats at another’s expense’ -> ‘animal or organism which lives in or upon another one’

·       metaphorical generalizations are useful euphemisms

                   -ethnic cleansing: removing stains || removing people

-collateral damage: damage “injury or harm that reduces value or usefulness”


Metonymy: a real rather than an imagined link between two concepts

·       e.g. referring to the US government as “Washington”

·       e.g. naming objects after their inventors, e.g. sandwich

·       e.g. euphemistic motivation: can distance or distract people from the real subject

                   -to sleep with somebody ‘to have sexual relations with them beforehand’

                   -“We lost 17 planes” (and the men in them)

-Schwarzkopf: “I’m going to suck Hussein into the desert, pound the living heck out of him, and engulf him and police him up”

-using Hussein to mean “Iraqi soldiers”

·       synecdoche: referring to the whole by what’s perceived to be the most important part

                   -e.g. hands “labourers”

                   -e.g. wheels “car”


Euphemisms are used to avoid referring directly to taboo subjects, e.g. illness, war

Strategies include using

·       more general terms:

                   -damage ‘death’

-growth ‘cancer’

·       metonyms

                   -planes, Hussein ‘Iraqi soldiers’

·       Latinate vocabulary: “collateral”, “mortician”

                   -opaque, (authoritative)

·       phonetic distortion (eg “Gosh”, “dang”, the “F” word)

o      includes acronyms: HRP “human remains pouch”


Often euphemisms fairly short-lived, as the old attitudes attach themselves to the new term, which might then narrow and pejorate …

·       depression, recession, …





Changes in the associations of the word


Pejoration: a downward turn in evaluative attitude, the loss of specifically positive connotations

·       one specific cause is euphemism

o      undertaker, mortician pejorated as the taboo on death remains even if words change

·       frequently due to social prejudice (terms for lower-class, women, foreigners)

                   -words for cleverness can develop connotations of dishonesty

                             -sly “dextrous” (sleight of hand), crafty, cunning


                             -cretin used to mean “Christian”

                             -silly used to mean “blessed”


                             cnafa “boy” -> “bad male”

                             boor “peasant”

                             churl “lowest rank of free man”

                             varlet “attendant, servant”

                             lewd “illiterate”

                                      -though surly “lordly”

·       though now words that show prejudice are avoided, e.g. fag, nigger



Amelioration: improvement in assigned value

·       arbitrary?

                   -e.g. OE cniht “boy employed as servant” -> “servant of the kind”

                   -cf. OE cnafa above

·       sometimes involves “weakening” of an originally strongly negative meaning

                   -intensifiers: terribly, awfully -> “very”

                             -very used to mean “truly”

                                      -intensifiers tend to get weakened: (totally!)

·       radical political correctness: deliberate reclamation of once-pejorated terms

                   -nigger, queer

                             -assertion of solidarity, pride, confrontation within the group


Deborah Cameron in Verbal Hygiene argues that there are two kinds of PC

          -liberal: terms like chairwoman used for civility, accuracy, fairness

-radical: terms like queer used by in-groups to emphasize the fact that there isn’t any common language, that people do not all speak from the same position

          -heterosexual white woman can’t use the term queer or nigger despite sympathy

-disrupts complacency about the power structures behind language and the power that I have as a heterosexual white woman

-or, since I can’t use any word comfortably, puts a straight white in the position of people who’ve had language taken away from them


Main sources (on reserve at Robarts)


McMahon, Understanding language change. Cambridge UP, 1994.

Pyles and Algeo. Origins and development of the English language.

[Nevalainen’s chapter in CHEL 3.]


If you’re interested in working on ‘political correctness’, you might be interested in

Deborah Cameron, Verbal Hygiene. London and New York: Routledge, 1996.