Historical Development of Word Meaning Semantic Change

Background on Semantic Change. The Importance of History in Our Own Lives. History Contributes to Moral Understanding. Experience in Assessing Past Examples of Change. Categories of semantic change. Metaphorical extension is the extension of meaning.

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Historical Development of Word Meaning - Semantic Change


In this paper, I want to give an overview on what semantic change is all about and how it can be shown in a number of examples in the English language: I subdivided the paper into five parts: After this introduction, information on the background on semantic change and the basis for semantic change will be given. As a next point, the mechanisms and causes for semantic change will be presented. Finally, results of semantic change and shifts in semantic fields will be presented. At the end of this paper I will sum up what I experienced during the research concerning semantic change.

1. Background on Semantic Change

In his book Principles of Historical Linguistics, Hans Henrich Hock says that when one thinks of the number of meanings which can be conveyed through language - in this paper I will concentrate on the English language - one eventually comes to the conclusion that there is an infinite number. Yet the human brain can only process and understand a limited amount of linguistic symbols. That is why the infinite number of possible meanings is reduced already by the problem of encoding so much information (cf. Hock 1991: 280). In addition to that, the problem of the infinity of word meaning is remedied by a number of other phenomena:

* There is a finite set of conventional linguistic symbols present which is known as the lexical items.

* There is a finite set of rules (syntax) which makes it possible that symbols can be combined into a larger structure. The syntax assures that the meanings of larger structures not simply form a composite of the meanings of lexical items they are composed of.

* The lexical items themselves are in a way constructed out of smaller sets of building blocks (these blocks are called phonemes and morphemes). [The phonemes and morphemes are again] governed by a finite set of rules (Hock 1991: 280). These rules are known as phonology and morphology.

As a consequence, the meaning of a word can be conveyed in an economical way by using a limited set of speech sounds. These speech sounds range between approximately 25 and 125. Here, the lexicon and the rules of syntax come into play: These two make it possible that infinity of possible sentences can be produced. So it is the economy and the conventional nature of the building blocks and their rules for combination that make it possible for humans to communicate. Yet at this point a problem arises: The economy and the conventional nature of the English language that have been praised before, are also responsible for the fact that the number of meanings that one wants to convey without having an ambiguous expression is indeed limited.

Thus, a single phonetic expression (which I will analyze in detail in the following example) can actually have a number of different meanings. They can either be quite close to each other concerning their meaning or they can have completely unrelated meanings. These different shades of meaning or the completely unrelated meanings depend on the linguistic, the social and on the cultural context. The following example is simply meant to be a lead-in to the great variety of phenomena the historical development of word meaning has caused. It illustrates in how far one single sentence can be understood in different ways. Starting from here, one will understand how much word meaning has developed.

History should be studied because it is essential to individuals and to society, and because it harbors beauty. There are many ways to discuss the real functions of the subject-as there are many different historical talents and many different paths to historical meaning. All definitions of history's utility, however, rely on two fundamental facts.

History Helps Us Understand People and Societies

In the first place, history offers a storehouse of information about how people and societies behave. Understanding the operations of people and societies is difficult, though a number of disciplines make the attempt. An exclusive reliance on current data would needlessly handicap our efforts. How can we evaluate war if the nation is at peace-unless we use historical materials? How can we understand genius, the influence of technological innovation, or the role that beliefs play in shaping family life, if we don't use what we know about experiences in the past? Some social scientists attempt to formulate laws or theories about human behavior. But even these recourses depend on historical information, except for in limited, often artificial cases in which experiments can be devised to determine how people act. Major aspects of a society's operation, like mass elections, missionary activities, or military alliances, cannot be set up as precise experiments. Consequently, history must serve, however imperfectly, as our laboratory, and data from the past must serve as our most vital evidence in the unavoidable quest to figure out why our complex species behaves as it does in societal settings. This, fundamentally, is why we cannot stay away from history: it offers the only extensive evidential base for the contemplation and analysis of how societies function, and people need to have some sense of how societies function simply to run their own lives.

History Helps Us Understand Change and How the Society We Live in Came to Be

The second reason history is inescapable as a subject of serious study follows closely on the first. The past causes the present, and so the future. Any time we try to know why something happened-whether a shift in political party dominance in the American Congress, a major change in the teenage suicide rate, or a war in the Balkans or the Middle East-we have to look for factors that took shape earlier. Sometimes fairly recent history will suffice to explain a major development, but often we need to look further back to identify the causes of change. Only through studying history can we grasp how things change; only through history can we begin to comprehend the factors that cause change; and only through history can we understand what elements of an institution or a society persist despite change.

The importance of history in explaining and understanding change in human behavior is no mere abstraction. Take an important human phenomenon such as alcoholism. Through biological experiments scientists have identified specific genes that seem to cause a proclivity toward alcohol addiction in some individuals. This is a notable advance. But alcoholism, as a social reality, has a history: rates of alcoholism have risen and fallen, and they have varied from one group to the next. Attitudes and policies about alcoholism have also changed and varied. History is indispensable to understanding why such changes occur. And in many ways historical analysis is a more challenging kind of exploration than genetic experimentation. Historians have in fact greatly contributed in recent decades to our understanding of trends (or patterns of change) in alcoholism and to our grasp of the dimensions of addiction as an evolving social problem.

One of the leading concerns of contemporary American politics is low voter turnout, even for major elections. A historical analysis of changes in voter turnout can help us begin to understand the problem we face today. What were turnouts in the past? When did the decline set in? Once we determine when the trend began, we can try to identify which of the factors present at the time combined to set the trend in motion. Do the same factors sustain the trend still, or are there new ingredients that have contributed to it in more recent decades? A purely contemporary analysis may shed some light on the problem, but a historical assessment is clearly fundamental-and essential for anyone concerned about American political health today.

History, then, provides the only extensive materials available to study the human condition. It also focuses attention on the complex processes of social change, including the factors that are causing change around us today. Here, at base, are the two related reasons many people become enthralled with the examination of the past and why our society requires and encourages the study of history as a major subject in the schools.

The Importance of History in Our Own Lives

These two fundamental reasons for studying history underlie more specific and quite diverse uses of history in our own lives. History well told is beautiful. Many of the historians who most appeal to the general reading public know the importance of dramatic and skillful writing-as well as of accuracy. Biography and military history appeal in part because of the tales they contain. History as art and entertainment serves a real purpose, on aesthetic grounds but also on the level of human understanding. Stories well done are stories that reveal how people and societies have actually functioned, and they prompt thoughts about the human experience in other times and places. The same aesthetic and humanistic goals inspire people to immerse themselves in efforts to reconstruct quite remote pasts, far removed from immediate, present-day utility. Exploring what historians sometimes call the pastness of the past - the ways people in distant ages constructed their lives-involves a sense of beauty and excitement, and ultimately another perspective on human life and society.

History Contributes to Moral Understanding

History also provides a terrain for moral contemplation. Studying the stories of individuals and situations in the past allows a student of history to test his or her own moral sense, to hone it against some of the real complexities individuals have faced in difficult settings. People who have weathered adversity not just in some work of fiction, but in real, historical circumstances can provide inspiration. History teaching by example is one phrase that describes this use of a study of the past-a study not only of certifiable heroes, the great men and women of history who successfully worked through moral dilemmas, but also of more ordinary people who provide lessons in courage, diligence, or constructive protest.

History Provides Identity

History also helps provide identity, and this is unquestionably one of the reasons all modern nations encourage its teaching in some form. Historical data include evidence about how families, groups, institutions and whole countries were formed and about how they have evolved while retaining cohesion. For many Americans, studying the history of one's own family is the most obvious use of history, for it provides facts about genealogy and (at a slightly more complex level) a basis for understanding how the family has interacted with larger historical change. Family identity is established and confirmed. Many institutions, businesses, communities, and social units, such as ethnic groups in the United States, use history for similar identity purposes. Merely defining the group in the present pales against the possibility of forming an identity based on a rich past. And of course nations use identity history as well-and sometimes abuse it. Histories that tell the national story, emphasizing distinctive features of the national experience, are meant to drive home an understanding of national values and a commitment to national loyalty.

Studying History Is Essential for Good Citizenship

A study of history is essential for good citizenship. This is the most common justification for the place of history in school curricula. Sometimes advocates of citizenship history hope merely to promote national identity and loyalty through a history spiced by vivid stories and lessons in individual success and morality. But the importance of history for citizenship goes beyond this narrow goal and can even challenge it at some points.

History that lays the foundation for genuine citizenship returns, in one sense, to the essential uses of the study of the past. History provides data about the emergence of national institutions, problems, and values-it's the only significant storehouse of such data available. It offers evidence also about how nations have interacted with other societies, providing international and comparative perspectives essential for responsible citizenship. Further, studying history helps us understand how recent, current, and prospective changes that affect the lives of citizens are emerging or may emerge and what causes are involved. More important, studying history encourages habits of mind that are vital for responsible public behavior, whether as a national or community leader, an informed voter, a petitioner, or a simple observer.

What Skills Does a Student of History Develop?

What does a well-trained student of history, schooled to work on past materials and on case studies in social change, learn how to do? The list is manageable, but it contains several overlapping categories.

The Ability to Assess Evidence. The study of history builds experience in dealing with and assessing various kinds of evidence-the sorts of evidence historians use in shaping the most accurate pictures of the past that they can. Learning how to interpret the statements of past political leaders-one kind of evidence-helps form the capacity to distinguish between the objective and the self-serving among statements made by present-day political leaders. Learning how to combine different kinds of evidence-public statements, private records, numerical data, visual materials-develops the ability to make coherent arguments based on a variety of data. This skill can also be applied to information encountered in everyday life.

The Ability to Assess Conflicting Interpretations. Learning history means gaining some skill in sorting through diverse, often conflicting interpretations. Understanding how societies work-the central goal of historical study-is inherently imprecise, and the same certainly holds true for understanding what is going on in the present day. Learning how to identify and evaluate conflicting interpretations is an essential citizenship skill for which history, as an often-contested laboratory of human experience, provides training. This is one area in which the full benefits of historical study sometimes clash with the narrower uses of the past to construct identity. Experience in examining past situations provides a constructively critical sense that can be applied to partisan claims about the glories of national or group identity. The study of history in no sense undermines loyalty or commitment, but it does teach the need for assessing arguments, and it provides opportunities to engage in debate and achieve perspective.

Experience in Assessing Past Examples of Change. Experience in assessing past examples of change is vital to understanding change in society today-it's an essential skill in what we are regularly told is our ever-changing world. Analysis of change means developing some capacity for determining the magnitude and significance of change, for some changes are more fundamental than others. Comparing particular changes to relevant examples from the past helps students of history develop this capacity. The ability to identify the continuities that always accompany even the most dramatic changes also comes from studying history, as does the skill to determine probable causes of change. Learning history helps one figure out, for example, if one main factor-such as a technological innovation or some deliberate new policy-accounts for a change or whether, as is more commonly the case, a number of factors combine to generate the actual change that occurs.

Historical study, in sum, is crucial to the promotion of that elusive creature, the well-informed citizen. It provides basic factual information about the background of our political institutions and about the values and problems that affect our social well-being. It also contributes to our capacity to use evidence, assess interpretations, and analyze change and continuities. No one can ever quite deal with the present as the historian deals with the past-we lack the perspective for this feat; but we can move in this direction by applying historical habits of mind, and we will function as better citizens in the process.

History Is Useful in the World of Work

History is useful for work. Its study helps create good businesspeople, professionals, and political leaders. The number of explicit professional jobs for historians is considerable, but most people who study history do not become professional historians. Professional historians teach at various levels, work in museums and media centers, do historical research for businesses or public agencies, or participate in the growing number of historical consultancies. These categories are important-indeed vital-to keep the basic enterprise of history going, but most people who study history use their training for broader professional purposes. Students of history find their experience directly relevant to jobs in a variety of careers as well as to further study in fields like law and public administration. Employers often deliberately seek students with the kinds of capacities historical study promotes. The reasons are not hard to identify: students of history acquire, by studying different phases of the past and different societies in the past, a broad perspective that gives them the range and flexibility required in many work situations. They develop research skills, the ability to find and evaluate sources of information, and the means to identify and evaluate diverse interpretations. Work in history also improves basic writing and speaking skills and is directly relevant to many of the analytical requirements in the public and private sectors, where the capacity to identify, assess, and explain trends is essential. Historical study is unquestionably an asset for a variety of work and professional situations, even though it does not, for most students, lead as directly to a particular job slot, as do some technical fields. But history particularly prepares students for the long haul in their careers, its qualities helping adaptation and advancement beyond entry-level employment. There is no denying that in our society many people who are drawn to historical study worry about relevance. In our changing economy, there is concern about job futures in most fields. Historical training is not, however, an indulgence; it applies directly to many careers and can clearly help us in our working lives.

What Kind of History Should We Study?

The question of why we should study history entails several subsidiary issues about what kind of history should be studied. Historians and the general public alike can generate a lot of heat about what specific history courses should appear in what part of the curriculum. Many of the benefits of history derive from various kinds of history, whether local or national or focused on one culture or the world. Gripping instances of history as storytelling, as moral example, and as analysis come from all sorts of settings. The most intense debates about what history should cover occur in relation to identity history and the attempt to argue that knowledge of certain historical facts marks one as an educated person. Some people feel that in order to become good citizens students must learn to recite the preamble of the American constitution or be able to identify Thomas Edison-though many historians would dissent from an unduly long list of factual obligations. Correspondingly, some feminists, eager to use history as part of their struggle, want to make sure that students know the names of key past leaders such as Susan B. Anthony. The range of possible survey and memorization chores is considerable-one reason that history texts are often quite long.

There is a fundamental tension in teaching and learning history between covering facts and developing historical habits of mind. Because history provides an immediate background to our own life and age, it is highly desirable to learn about forces that arose in the past and continue to affect the modern world. This type of knowledge requires some attention to comprehending the development of national institutions and trends. It also demands some historical understanding of key forces in the wider world. The ongoing tension between Christianity and Islam, for instance, requires some knowledge of patterns that took shape over 12 centuries ago. Indeed, the pressing need to learn about issues of importance throughout the world is the basic reason that world history has been gaining ground in American curriculums. Historical habits of mind are enriched when we learn to compare different patterns of historical development, which means some study of other national traditions and civilizations.

The key to developing historical habits of mind, however, is having repeated experience in historical inquiry. Such experience should involve a variety of materials and a diversity of analytical problems. Facts are essential in this process, for historical analysis depends on data, but it does not matter whether these facts come from local, national, or world history-although it's most useful to study a range of settings. What matters is learning how to assess different magnitudes of historical change, different examples of conflicting interpretations, and multiple kinds of evidence. Developing the ability to repeat fundamental thinking habits through increasingly complex exercises is essential. Historical processes and institutions that are deemed especially important to specific curriculums can, of course, be used to teach historical inquiry. Appropriate balance is the obvious goal, with an insistence on factual knowledge not allowed to overshadow the need to develop historical habits of mind.

Exposure to certain essential historical episodes and experience in historical inquiry are crucial to any program of historical study, but they require supplement. No program can be fully functional if it does not allow for whimsy and individual taste. Pursuing particular stories or types of problems, simply because they tickle the fancy, contributes to a rounded intellectual life. Similarly, no program in history is complete unless it provides some understanding of the ongoing role of historical inquiry in expanding our knowledge of the past and, with it, of human and social behavior. The past two decades have seen a genuine explosion of historical information and analysis, as additional facets of human behavior have been subjected to research and interpretation. And there is every sign that historians are continuing to expand our understanding of the past. It's clear that the discipline of history is a source of innovation and not merely a framework for repeated renderings of established data and familiar stories.

Why study history? The answer is because we virtually must, to gain access to the laboratory of human experience. When we study it reasonably well, and so acquire some usable habits of mind, as well as some basic data about the forces that affect our own lives, we emerge with relevant skills and an enhanced capacity for informed citizenship, critical thinking, and simple awareness. The uses of history are varied. Studying history can help us develop some literally salable skills, but its study must not be pinned down to the narrowest utilitarianism. Some history-that confined to personal recollections about changes and continuities in the immediate environment-is essential to function beyond childhood. Some history depends on personal taste, where one finds beauty, the joy of discovery, or intellectual challenge. Between the inescapable minimum and the pleasure of deep commitment comes the history that, through cumulative skill in interpreting the unfolding human record, provides a real grasp of how the world works.

To say that Bilbo's breath was taken away is no description at all. There are no words left to express his staggerment, since Men changed the language that they learned of elves in the days when all the world was wonderful. Bilbo had heard tell and sing of dragon-hoards before, but the splendour, the lust, the glory of such treasure had never yet come home to him.

J.R.R. Tolkien, The Hobbit

If the history of semantic change had to be summed up as one process, it would be that of specialization. The Anglo Saxons 1500 years ago made do with perhaps 30,000 words in their complete vocabulary, while Modern English has anywhere from 500,000 to a million words, depending on whether or not scientific vocabularies are included.

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was God, and the Word was with God. It could be argued that originally there was one word, from which all others have sprung. The origins of language will never be known, but the first language probably had a vocabulary of a few hundred words, providing a rich enough vocabulary for a primitive people who had few materials and fewer abstract concepts. Many of the words of the first languages had very broad senses of meaning.

For instance, the word inspire is from the Latin inspirare, which literally means to breathe into. Its archaic meaning is to breathe life into, with newer meanings like to be the cause of, to elicit, to move to action, to exalt and to guide by divine influence. Now if a minister were to speak of Adam as dust inspired, he might mean by that not just that the dust is having life breathed into it (the original etymological meaning), but also that the dust is being exalted and given form, that it is being moved to action, and that it is being divinely guided (these are the metaphorical or extended meanings). In other words, this minister might not mean just one of the definitions of inspired but all of them simultaneously.

The extended meanings are branches that have split off from the trunk, and our hypothetical minister has simply traced them back to the root.

If you seek to create a language from an earlier time, you should probably develop a small vocabulary, with it words having much more overlapping of meaning than the vocabularies of modern languages. Imagine a word spiratholmos - an ancient ancestor to Latin inspirare - meaning wind, breath, voice, spirit. A speaker who used the word spiratholmos would regard the wind in the trees as the breath of the earth, the voice of God, the spirit animating each of us.

This is different way of looking at words, and prompted Tolkien to write, There are no words left to express his staggerment, since Men changed the language that they learned of elves in the days when all the world was wonderful. What Tolkien's elves might have expressed in one word, resonant with meaning, Tolkien's diminutive man cannot express at all.

Semantic change can be viewed dispassionately as a natural process, but it can also be invested with a spiritual significance, as Tolkien and Suffield have done. A model language is an art form and its crafting can even convey this theme of spiritual isolation. As Ronald Suffield wrote, no word is still the word, but, a loafward has become lord.

Silly are the goddy tawdry maudlin for they shall christgeewhiz bow down before him: bedead old men, priest and prester, babeling a pitterpatternoster: no word is still the word, but, a loafward has become lord.

Ronald Suffield, The Tenth Beatitude

This subtle poem by the English philologist Ronald Suffield is actually written at two levels. For Suffield intends that the reader hold in mind not just the current meanings of these words but the original meanings as well. For the meaning of a word changes over time. The example everyone knows is gay, which originally meant merry, but because some people are a little too merry came to mean wanton, and because some people are a little too wanton came to mean homosexual, which is the sense almost exclusively used now.

A model language that you develop will have words that are descended from words with quite different meanings. Some of the words used in Ronald Suffield's poem, The Tenth Beatitude, will be used to demonstrate how words change through time.




Pejoration is the process by which a word's meaning worsens or degenerates, coming to represent something less favorable than it originally did. Most of the words in Suffield's poem have undergone pejoration.

For instance, the word silly begins Suffield's poem and meant in Old English times blessed, which is why Suffield calls his poem a beatitude (Christ's beatitudes begin with blessed are the). How did a word meaning blessed come to mean silly? Well, since people who are blessed are often innocent and guileless, the word gradually came to mean innocent. And some of those who are innocent might be innocent because they haven't the brains to be anything else. And some of those who are innocent might be innocent because they knowingly reject opportunities for temptation. In either case, since the more worldly-wise would take advantage of their opportunities, the innocents must therefore be foolish, which of course is the current primary meaning of the word silly.

The word goddy in the poem is a metaplasmus (artful misspelling) of gaudy. The word gaudy was derived from the Latin word gaudium, joy, which was applied to praying (as a type of rejoicing). Because the most common prayers in Middle English times were the prayers of the rosary, Middle English gaude came to be associated with the rosary and came to mean an ornamental rosary bead. Unfortunately, not all who prayed with the rosary were genuinely pious; many were like the Pharisees of old and just wanted to be seen praying - religion for them was decorative (ornamental) rather than functional. As a result, modern English gaudy gradually acquired its current meaning of tasteless or ostentatious ornamentation.

A related word to gaudy, which is not explicitly referenced in Suffield's poem but is implied, is bead (in the poem, bedead is probably an anagrammatic play on beaded). In Middle English times, bead (then spelled 'bede') referred only to a rosary bead. Middle English bede was itself descended from Old English gebed, prayer. The phrase telling one's beads was literally saying one's prayers, with each rosary bead used to keep count of the number of prayers said. In the days when all English-speaking Christians were Catholics, using the rosary was such a common practice that it was only natural for the word for prayer to become the word for the bead used to say a prayer.

In this way, Suffield is arguing, deep spiritual communication has been trivialized into a trinket. Modern English bead has come so far from its original center that its sphere of meaning no longer includes prayer - but does include other small round objects, such as beads of sweat.

The word rosary, incidentally, originally was Latin for a rose garden, which was applied as a metaphorical description of the prayer cycle, which was a rose garden of prayers, with the rose garden symbolizing both the Garden of Eden (or paradise, which originally meant, well we could go on forever) and the rose of the Virgin Mary.

A word that has shown similar semantic degeneration to gaudy is tawdry. In the eighth century, AEthelthy/rth, Queen of Northumbria, abdicated her office and renounced the pleasures of the flesh, having her marriage to the King of Northumbria annulled to become abbess of a monastery on the Isle of Ely. This act of sacrifice and her subsequent holiness prompted others to revere her as a saint. Legend has it that she died of a disease of the throat, a disease that she regarded as judgment upon the vanity of her youth, when she loved to wear beautiful necklaces in court. Eventually, AEthelthy/rth was beatified, and - as by this time phonetic change had simplified her name to Audrey - she was known as St. Audrey. An annual fair was held in her memory each October 17th, and at the fair were sold cheap souvenirs, including a neck lace called St. Audrey's lace. In England, the initial [s] of saints' names is often elided (for instance, the town of St. Albans in Hertfordshire is locally pronounced as [talbans] by some). As a result of this process, by the 1800s, the necklaces were called tawdry laces. It wasn't long before tawdry was applied to the other cheap souvenirs sold at the annual fair, with the result that tawdry became a general adjective meaning gaudy and cheap in appearance.

The word tawdry is not the only eponymous word to degenerate: the last word in Suffield's first stanza, maudlin, is short for Magdalene. Mary Magdalene was the reformed prostitute who wept at Christ's tomb that first Easter morning; this weeping has been memorialized in innumerable medieval paintings and stain-glass windows. As a result, her name came to be used to describe anyone who was weeping, and from there the meaning radiated out to excessively sentimental. Magdalene came to be pronounced maudlin through gradual phonetic change; in fact, Magdalen College at Oxford University is locally known as Maudlin. Silly are the goddy tawdry maudlin.

Moving on to the next line of Suffield's poem (for they shall christgeewhiz bow down before him), we find another religious figure, of greater stature than Mary Magdalene or St. Audrey, who has had his name spawn many new words. Of course, this is Jesus Christ, whose name has become an oath. Because swearing is considered inappropriate in polite society, people slightly changed the sound of the invective. Damn it! became darn it!, shit! became shoot!, Jesus! became gee, gee whiz and geez and Jesus Christ! became Jiminy Crickets, among others. These euphemistic changes are called minced oaths.

The final word in Suffield's poem to undergo pejoration is paternoster, which is descended from the Latin pater noster, which represents Our Father, the first words of the Lord's Prayer. As a result of this relationship, the words came to be known as another name for the Lord's Prayer and came to mean one of the large beads on a rosary on which the Paternoster was recited (those beads again!). As its meaning radiated outward from large bead, it even came to mean a weighted fishing line with hooks connected by bead-like swivels. The word paternoster also came to mean any word-formula spoken as a prayer or magic spell. Since the Paternoster was in Latin, and in Medieval times Latin was no longer the native language of any of the reciters, the prayer was often recited quickly and with little regard for the sense of the words. Because of this, paternoster came to mean meaningless chatter, words empty of meaning - this sense of the word gave rise to the form patter. (The word pitter-patter, though used by Suffield in his poem, is actually etymologically unrelated to the word patter with this meaning.)

Patter has the sense of meaningless words, and sharp words can become rounded and dull. But although Suffield laments that no word is still the Word [of God], some words do assume a dignity they had not before possessed.


Amelioration is the process by which a word's meaning improves or becomes elevated, coming to represent something more favorable than it originally referred to.

Two words that have undergone amelioration are priest and prester. Both words (along with presbyter) are descended from the Greek word presbuteros, older man, elder, a comparative form of the word presbus, old man. Because churches of most religions are headed by elders and not youth, and because age is often equated with wisdom, the Greek word gradually acquired the meaning of church leader, priest. The different forms represent borrowings made at different times, with priest being the oldest English form, followed by prester, followed by the learned borrowing of presbyter.

In what for Suffield is the greatest example of amelioration, the early Old English word hlfweard, which if translated using its descendant words would be rendered loafward, meant the keeper of the bread and was applied to the head of a household. Although keeper of the bread might bear witness to the importance of that most basic of foodstuffs to early Anglo-Saxons, alternatively one might argue that it had no more literal sense than bread - does in the modern word breadwinner. The word hlfweard has been shortened over time, first to hlford and then to lord. Over time, the word has been used of not just any head of household but of princes and nobility; this sense was extended to include the Prince of Light, God. For Suffield, this extension of lord makes a fitting appellation for Christ, given that Christ was the keeper of the bread of communion. The word lord, which ends the poem, stands in start contrast to the demeaning phrase christgeewhiz used earlier in the poem as an example of pejoration. By ending the poem with the word lord, Suffield offers a hope for redemption for all words.

Clearly the poet Suffield believes that man has taken the meaning out of God's words, reducing pater noster to patter and God's son's name to a curse. Yet if he is extreme in his view of pejoration as an example of man's trivialization of God and rejection of divine meaning, the process of semantic change is almost universally condemned by teachers, scholars and other concerned language speakers. In fact, semantic drift is as natural as continental drift and almost as inexorable. The meanings of words change, sometimes for the worse, but sometimes providing useful distinctions. Some words, like lord, are even inspired.

Categories of semantic change

As the above discussion shows, many people view semantic change with strong emotions. Some, like Suffield, may even perceive it as an almost diabolical force. The discussion of meaning change is often emotionally charged, with the meanings perceived as improving (amelioration) or worsening (pejoration) over time. This next section will attempt to provide a more clinical overview of how words change meanings.

Try this: flip through the dictionary and look at random for a word with four or more meanings, preferably a word you think you know. Chances are you will find that it has an unlikely hodge-podge of meanings, at least one of which will surprise you. Here's what I found when I tried this myself: daughter has these senses, among others:

One's female child.

A female descendant.

A woman thought of as if in a parent/child relationship: a daughter of Christ.

Something personified as a female descendant: the Singer sewing machine is the daughter of the loom.

Physics. The immediate product of the radioactive decay of an element.

The last sense makes me want to write a short story, The Daughter of Fat Man, in which I could use the word daughter in at least three of its senses. How does a word come to have such broad, often very different, meanings?

At the simplest level, words do undergo only two types of meaning change, not amelioration and pejoration, but generalization (a word's meaning widens to include new concepts), and specialization (a word's meaning contracts to focus on fewer concepts).



A taxonomy of semantic change


Also known as extension, generalization is the use of a word in a broader realm of meaning than it originally possessed, often referring to all items in a class, rather than one specific item. For instance, place derives from Latin platea, broad street, but its meaning grew broader than the street, to include a particular city, a business office, an area dedicated to a specific purpose before broadening even wider to mean area. In the process, the word place displaced (!) the Old English word stow and became used instead of the Old English word stede (which survives instead, steadfast, steady and - of course - instead).

Generalization is a natural process, especially in situations of language on a shoestring, where the speaker has a limited vocabulary at her disposal, either because she is young and just acquiring language or because she is not fluent in a second language. A first-year Spanish student on her first vacation in Spain might find herself using the word coche, car, for cars, trucks, jeeps, buses, and so on. When my son Alexander was two, he used the word oinju (from orange juice) to refer to any type of juice, including grape juice and apple juice; wawa (from water) referred to water and hoses, among other things.

Some examples of general English words that have undergone generalization include:

Word Old Meaning

pants men's wide breeches extending from waist to ankle

place broad street


The opposite of generalization, specialization is the narrowing of a word to refer to what previously would have been but one example of what it referred to. For instance, the word meat originally referred to any type of food, but came to mean the flesh of animals as opposed to the flesh of fish. The original sense of meat survives in terms like mincemeat, chopped apples and spices used as a pie filling; sweetmeat, candy; and nutmeat, the edible portion of a nut. When developing your model language, it is meet to leave compounds untouched, even if one of their morphemes has undergone specialization (or any other meaning change).

For an example from another language, the Japanese word koto originally referred to any type of stringed instrument but came to be used to refer only a specific instrument with 13 strings, which was played horizontally and was popular in the Edo Period.

Other examples of specialization, from the development of English, include:

Word Old Meaning

affection emotion

deer animal

forest countryside

girl a young person

starve to die

A taxonomy of semantic change

All other semantic change can be discussed in either terms of generalization or specialization. The following diagram shows different subtypes of meaning change.

Generalization, or extension


Metaphorical extension


Specialization or narrowing

Contextual specialization




Semantic reversal



A shift in meaning results from the subsequent action of generalization and specialization over time: a word that has extended into a new area then undergoes narrowing to exclude its original meaning. In the unlikely event that all the senses of place except for a business office faded away, then place would be said to have undergone a shift.



Metonymy is a figure of speech where one word is substituted for a related word; the relationship might be that of cause and effect, container and contained, part and whole. For instance, Shakespeare's comment Is it not strange that sheep's guts should hale souls out of men's bodies? (from Much Ado About Nothing) uses sheep's guts to refer to the music produced by harpstrings. Had guts come to mean music, then the meaning would have shifted due to metonymy.

The Greek word dma originally meant roof. In the same way English speakers will metonymically use roof to mean house (as in Now we have a roof over our heads), the Greeks frequently used dma to refer to house, so that that is now the standard meaning of the word. A Russian word will provide a similar example: vinograd, vineyard, was so frequently used to refer to grapes, as in Let's have a taste of the vineyard that it has come to mean grapes.

Metaphorical extension

Grace Murray Hopper, the late Admiral and computer pioneer, told a story of an early computer that kept calculating incorrectly. When technicians opened up its case to examine the wiring, which physically represented the machine's logic, a huge dead moth was found, shorting out one of the circuits and causing the faulty logic. That moth was the first of its kind to achieve immortality. Because of it, software is now frequently plagued with bugs.

The use of bug to refer to an error in computer logic was a metaphorical extension that became so popular that it is now part of the regular meaning of bug. The computer industry has a host of words whose meaning has been extended through such metaphors, including mouse for that now ubiquitous computer input device (so named because the cord connecting it to the computer made it resemble that cutest of rodents).

Metaphorical extension is the extension of meaning in a new direction through popular adoption of an originally metaphorical meaning. The crane at a construction site was given its name by comparison to the long-necked bird of the same name. When the meaning of the word daughter was first extended from that of one's female child to a female descendant (as in daughter of Eve), the listener might not have even noticed that the meaning had been extended.

Metaphorical extension is almost a natural process undergone by every word. We don't even think of it as meaning change. In its less obvious instances, we don't even see it as extending the meaning of a word. For example, the word illuminate originally meant to light up, but has broadened to mean to clarify, to edify. These meanings seem so natural as to be integral parts of the words, where senses such as to celebrate and to adorn a page with designs seem like more obvious additions.

A few specific metaphors are common to many different languages, and words can be shown to have undergone similar, if independent, developments. Thus the Welsh word haul and the Gaelic word sil, both meaning sun, have both come to mean eye. Nor is this metaphor a stranger to English, where the daisy was in Old English originally a compound meaning day's eye, from its yellow similarity to the sun.

More often, languages will differ in the precise correspondences between words, so that some languages have broad words with many meanings, which must be translated into multiple words in another language. A word like paternoster, discussed earlier, with senses ranging from the Lord's Prayer to a magic spell to a large bead to a weighted fishing line will have to be translated into four different words in another language (though I challenge you to find an English-to-language-of-your - choice dictionary that indicates the four meanings of paternoster).

Word Old Meaning

illuminate to light up


Radiation is metaphorical extension on a grander scale, with new meanings radiating from a central semantic core to embrace many related ideas. The word head originally referred to that part of the human body above the rest. Since the top of a nail, pin or screw is, like the human head, the top of a slim outline, that sense has become included in the meaning of head. Since the bulb of a cabbage or lettuce is round like the human head, that sense has become included in the meaning of head. Know where I'm headed with this? The meaning of the word head has radiated out to include the head of a coin (the side picturing the human head), the head of the list (the top item in the list), the head of a table, the head of the family, a head of cattle, $50 a head. But I'll stop while I'm ahead.

Other words that have similarly radiated meanings outward from a central core include the words heart, root and sun.


The only specific subtype of specialization that I have identified is contextual specialization.

Contextual specialization

The word undertaker originally meant one who undertakes a task, especially one who is an entrepreneur. This illustrates contextual specialization, where the meaning of a word is reshaped under pressure from another word that had frequently co-occured with it: thus undertaker acquired its meaning from constant use of the phrase funeral undertaker; eventually, under the pressure towards euphemism, the word funeral was dropped.

Another example of contextual specialization is doctor, which originally meant a teacher and then later an expert, where it came to be used in the phrase medical doctor; now of course this is redundant and medical is omitted, with the primary sense of doctor having become more specialized.

Word Old Meaning

undertaker entrepreneur

doctor teacher


I heard an American student at Cambridge University telling some English friends how he climbed over a locked gate to get into his college and tore his pants, and one of them asked, 'But, how could you tear your pants and not your trousers?

Norman Moss, British/American Language Dictionary

Shifts occur when the sense of a word expands and contracts, with the final focus of the meaning different from the original. For some reason, words describing clothing tend to shift meanings more frequently than other words, perhaps because fashion trends come and go, leaving words to seem as old fashioned as the clothing they describe. Who today wants to wear bloomers, knickers or pantaloons?

The word pants has an interesting history. It's ultimate etymon is Old Italian Pantalone. In the 1600s, Italy developed commedia dell'arte, a style of comedy based on improvisation using stock characters. Pantalone was a stock character who was portrayed as a foolish old man wearing slippers and tight trousers. Through regular metyonmy, speakers of Old French borrowed his name to describe his Italian trousers. Their word was then borrowed into English as pantaloon, which in time was shortened to pants and came to mean trousers in general. British speakers of English have modified the meaning again to the sense of underpants, resulting in the confusing situation described in Norman Moss' quote above.

Cast like discarded laundry along the divide separating British and American English are quite a few words for clothing, as the following table shows.

Word Meaning


Etymon: English dialect jump

Original: loose jacket

American: pinafore

British: a light pullover


Etymon: knickerbockers

Original: breeches banded below knee

American: boy's baggy trousers banded below knee

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