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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British: bloomers, old-fashioned female underpants


Etymon: pantaloon, from Old French pantalon

Original: men's wide breeches extending from waist to ankle

American: trousers

British: underpants


Etymon: suspend

Original: (unchanged) straps to support trousers

American: (unchanged)

British: garter


Etymon: tight, adj.

Original: (unchanged) snug, stretchable apparel worn from neck to toe; typically worn by dancers or acrobats

American: (unchanged)

British: pantyhose


Etymon: Old French veste It. Lat. vestis

Original: clothing

American: waistcoat

British: undershirt


Suffield's poem gave many good examples of amelioration, including priest from old man. A complementary term, pastor, likewise underwent amelioration, originally meaning shepherd (a sense surviving in the word pastoral), but coming to mean its current sense of minister by the extensive Christian references to the Lord is my shepherd as a call to ministry.

The following table shows other examples, including pluck in the sense of He has a lot of pluck.

Word Old Meaning

enthusiasm abuse

guts (courage) entrails

pastor shepherd

pluck (spirit) act of tugging

queen woman


King James II called the just completed St. Paul's Cathedral amusing, awful and artificial. Call the just completed rock and roll museum in Cleveland amusing, awful and artificial, and you may be accurate but you will mean something quite different from King James. When he lived, those words meant that the cathedral was pleasing, awe-inspiring and artful respectively. The meaning of each word has grown more negative with time. People seem much more likely to drag words down than to lift them up, to build museums instead of cathedrals, as the following examples may demonstrate.

Word Old Meaning

crafty strong

cunning knowing

egregious distinguished, standing out from the herd

harlot a boy

notorious famous

obsequious flexible

vulgar popular

Semantic reversal

Occasionally a word will shift so far from its original meaning that its meaning will nearly reverse. Fascinatingly enough, the word manufacture originally meant to make by hand.

Word Old Meaning

counterfeit an original

garble to sort out

manufacture to make by hand


A contronym is like a word that has undergone semantic reversal, only the tension has not eased: the word still preserves its original meaning, along with a contradictory - if not exactly counterposed - meaning.

Word Meanings

bimonthly happening every other month, happening twice monthly

biweekly happening every other week, happening twice weekly

ravish to overwhelm with force, especially rape*, to overwhelm with emotion, enrapture

sanction authoritative measure of approval*, coercive measure of disapproval of nation against nation

table Brit. to put on the table for discussion, Amer. to set aside a motion rather than discuss it

Interestingly, biannual means only twice each year, with no recorded sense of every other year in Webster's II New Riverside University Dictionary.

The word cleave (meaning to split or separate or to adhere or cling) is actually two different words, both from the Old English (cle-ofan and cleofian respectively) but by changes in pronunciation, these words have evolved the same current form.


The nadir of semantics is meaninglessness. The final semantic change. The death of meaning. The defeat of sigor.

The word sigor is Old English for victory. It is now meaningless to almost all English speakers, except for those familiar with Old English or with German (where its cognate survives in Seig).

Few now know what sigor means. Is this a change in its meaning or a change in the very state of the word? Is death part of life?

Meaning change across languages

Imagine for a moment that sigor had survived. It might have been changed to siyor, and its meaning could have generalized to success. It would then stand in contrast to the German Seig.

Sister languages, or dialects of a language, often have the same basic word with different meanings. These word pairs then become known as false friends to speakers trying to learn the other language. For instance, German Lust means pleasure, which is in fact the original meaning of the English word, which comes from the same common ancestor as Lust. In English, lust underwent specialization and pejoration, as speakers associated it with only one type of pleasure. The British and American English clothing terms also show how related languages can send words off in different directions over time.

As you develop your model languages, you should have words in related languages undergo different semantic changes. Situations where a word's meaning changes in two related languages are relatively rare, the example of the Irish and Gaelic words for sun evolving into eye notwithstanding.

When languages borrow words, they frequently change the meanings of those borrowings, typically making generic words more specific, in the same way that one language's place names often grew out of another language's generic words for concepts such as hill, river and town. Take the history of the Low German word spittal, derived from a generic Romance word for hospital but then applied to a hospital for lepers.

Meaning change through time

Future meaning change

The history of meaning change

Future meaning change

Words are slowly changing in meaning even now, though the changes happen at the speed of continental drift rather than with the sudden jolt of earthquakes. To conclude this issue, and to summarize the types of meaning change discussed here, I have extrapolated how some words might change meanings in the next 25 years.

Generalization: entrepreneur, small-business owner or worker (because of its favorable connotations, this word was widely adopted as a label, even by those who were not risk takers).

Metonymy: sun-cell, electric car (so called because of the prominent solar cell on the roof of the vehicle).

Metaphorical Extension: surfaced, checked all Internet messages, including e-mail, voice mail and video mail (originally popularized in the phrase I just surfaced from checking my flood of e-mail; given added cachet under the influence of surf, which see).

Radiation: Internet, Internet, narrowcast television, narrowcast radio, virtual reality, videoconferencing (because it all was added onto the 'Net).

Specialization: surf, navigate the Internet (traditional water surfing becomes called sea-boarding).

Contextual Specialization: candidate, political candidate (the word contestant began to be used instead of candidate for non-political contexts).

Shift: fax, point-to-point e-mail (e-mail gradually superseded fax). post-modern, modern (by calling everything modern post - modern, this change was inevitable).

Amelioration: temp, specialist.

Pejoration: liberal, idiot (this term was used as an insult as early as 1988 and was gradually abandoned as a label by the Democrats it originally described). job, drudgery.

Semantic Reversal: modern, obsolete (thanks to the change in meaning of post-modern). putrid, cool (slang).

Contronym: communism, communism, capitalism (courtesy of the Hong Kong communists).

Meaninglessness: perestroika (this word was used only by historians interested in how the Russian economy followed that of Sicily).

If you want to create a slang or jargon, besides coining new words you should change the meanings of current words, much as these examples did. Just be aware that it is easier for an outsider to pick up new words than old words whose meaning has changed, since the outsider will bring all his assumptions from past experience to bear, so that when he hears a teenager call something putrid, he will assume that it is putrid.

The history of meaning change

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.

word moral experience semantic


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