Semantic Change in the English Language: Evolution of Words

‘Want to grab a pint next weekend?’

‘You mean this weekend?’

‘No, I mean the weekend after that… next, next weekend… two weekends from now…’

I don’t remember the number of times I’ve had this sort of conversation. It’s common. It’s frustrating. Which is why Ivan Cash and Jeremy Knight have created a new word to describe, not this coming weekend but the following, in order to eliminate the usage of the ambiguous ‘next’ altogether: oxt.

‘Want to grab a pint oxt weekend?’

‘Yeah, I’m keen!’

Simple. Easy. Revolutionary. Still confused? Here’s a graphic from their Oxt Weekend website (visit their site for an interactive graphic):

FirefoxScreenSnapz026

And it’s not just for weekends. ‘Oxt Friday’ means the Friday after this Friday, and ‘oxt week’ means the week after this week.

Yes, it may seem a bit odd, but if it catches on, it’ll be just one of many words that have been created and inserted into the English lexicon. Flexible and malleable is our unique, bastardised and beautiful language.

I wrote an essay examining various types, examples and motivations of semantic change in my first year of university (already 3 years ago!—forgive the poor writing). Have a read—it’s a fascinating dissection of a language many speak without realising how complex and tumultuous its evolution has been!

~

Semantic Change in the English Language: Evolution of Words
by Justin Lau

In order to grasp someone’s attention immediately, as in with the opening line of an essay or the first words of a speech given by a presidential candidate, one must generally employ words with a commonly accepted meaning by the majority. This is perfectly sensible if one desired to efficiently communicate with another without misunderstandings. Gustaf Stern asserts that the speaker must conform ‘to the ruling language system, in order to be understood by his hearers’.[1] But throughout the history of English word meanings have undoubtedly changed, be it drastically or not, and this has certainly impacted the way people speak today. Even T. S. Eliot, in his poem entitled ‘Burnt Norton’, observed the manner that ‘Words strain / Crack and sometimes break’.[2] To an assured extent, words have indeed undergone incredulous transformations which threaten the security of ‘correct’ definitions. But why does such a phenomenon exist? Stern states: ‘Every man has […] thoughts and feelings to express that are peculiarly his own’.[3] This is one of many theoretical reasons for the flexibility of language and the freedom accompanying a multitude of words previously understood differently. Semantic change can be classified into groups of specific types as evidenced by various examples of commonly used words that have evolved over time. Though the list is not exhaustive, one can easily see the more characteristic types permeating extensively through English and culminating in unforeseen processes of word meanings. Although there is no one explanation behind the inevitable change of meanings, it is possible to infer important motivations for the language shift and spread.

It is firstly important to comprehend the definition of semantic change. The English language constantly changes, whether daily or over long periods of time, but semantic change refers specifically to the change in meanings of particular words. According to Joachim Grzega and Marion Schöner, this differs from lexical change in that ‘no formally new creation occurs, but an already existing form is extended in use.’[4] In other words, semantic change is not the formation of completely new words never used before, but rather a transformation of currently used words. Stern simply describes it as ‘when a word is employed to express a meaning which it has not previously expressed’.[5] It shows the acceptance of a continually changing language system apparent even in individual words, as well as suggesting the possibility of any person being capable of personally altering such a widely spoken language on a greater scale.

Bethlem_Royal_Hospital_Main_building_view_1 copy

Bedlam © Wikimedia

Now that the definition of semantic change is clear, one can now examine specific words that have changed over time. Many words currently used with a particular meaning did not possess the same meaning, or even connotation, years ago. One of the most widely accepted change types is the extension of meaning, which involves ‘the widening of a word’s signification until it covers much more than the idea originally conveyed.’[6] Take, for example, the word lovely, which according to the Oxford English Dictionary, described someone ‘deserving of love or admiration’ during the period of Old English till the mid-nineteenth century.[7] Now it has extended, or generalised, into a word with a wider scope, used very often to describe anything as delightful, enjoyable, and simply nice. If lovely had retained its original meaning, one would most likely hesitate in using it to describe a nice chair, unless he were truly infatuated with it. Bedlam conveys another occurrence of extension: originally the name of an asylum for the mentally ill belonging to London’s Bethlehem Hospital in the sixteenth century, it has now come to mean any scene of madness or lunacy.[8] One can sense the emergence of its new meaning stemming possibly from both convenient usage as well as social allusions. It is rather unfortunate for the hospital’s legacy to transpire in such an infamous manner.

As expected, the opposite of the widely encompassing function of extension is narrowing, which in contrast restricts the range of meanings.[9] Albert C. Baugh and Thomas Cable examine the word doctor: though it technically refers to ‘learned man and women’ in ‘theology, law, and many other fields beside medicine,’[10] it is now commonly presumed to mean the person in a white coat who prescribes drugs when people are ill. Girl, in its Middle English form, referred to a young person of either sex, but now solely means a female child or young woman.[11] Leonard Bloomfield gives another example of a narrowed word: meat. In Old English, mete denoted all forms of food, especially evident in the King James Bible, which described the herbs and trees as meat to eat:[12] ‘I have given every green herb for meat’.[13] But meat subsequently came to indicate ‘edible flesh’,[14] strikingly reduced to a mere partial definition as compared with its initial capacity and application.

Metaphors are literary figures of speech that serve to compare and present a similarity between two separate objects. This device, interestingly enough, also contributes to the patterns of semantic change. Lyle Campbell describes metaphor as an extension of word meanings to entail ‘a semantic similarity or connection between the new sense and the original one.’[15] For example, root was originally associated with a plant, but it is now often used in correlation with words, algebra, and even to mean ‘source’.[16] In the nineteenth century, the word broadcast referred to the scattering of seeds,[17] but now many people only know the modern, metaphorical sense: to disseminate through radio or television by ‘the diffusion of radio waves through space’.[18] A lot of semantic change has occurred not just over the centuries, but also in recent years. The slang word drunk ‘involves being saturated with liquid’; thus the terms ‘pissed’ and ‘soaked’ are used likewise.[19] These words prove the extensive variety of connotations one single word can conjure up, demonstrating the rich vocabulary of English.

Hoover © Wikimedia

Hoover © Wikimedia

A change type often linked hand-in-hand with metaphor is metonymy, which unlike the former does not involve two completely separate objects, but rather concepts that are ‘near each other in space or time’[20] and are ‘neighbours’.[21] These new senses are not entirely foreign to the original meanings, but rather an addition of related associations. The Old English word cēace initially referred to the jaw, but as time went on, the word cheek meant the side of the face below the eye.[22] Campbell provides another example with the word tea, which ‘in addition to the drink’ can also allude to ‘the evening meal’.[23] Grzega and Schöner elaborate upon a more specified type of metonymy known as eponymy, which happens when ‘a proper name is taken to serve a concept’.[24] For example, the company Hoover was such an important producer that its name generally refers to any type of vacuum cleaner;[25] similarly Kleenex now refers to any facial tissue.[26] Subsequent brands will unmistakably have a difficult time replacing already accepted names with their own.

Two further types of semantic change are degeneration and elevation. Degeneration, also termed pejoration,[27] results in words losing particular meanings, and at times, even attaining a less favourable and negative sense.[28] Elevation, or amelioration,[29] has the opposite effect, in which words attain an increasingly positive meaning as compared to its original understanding.[30] Vulgar is an obvious form of degeneration where presently it describes someone as offensive and uncultured, as opposed to centuries ago when it simply referred to anything in customary practice or belonging to the common people.[31] Another famous example is knave, which now mainly means a crafty rogue and a fool, but comes from the Old English cnafa, meaning a boy or servant.[32] On the other hand, the Old English word cniht, which also meant a boy or servant, underwent the counter effect of elevation and resulted in the word knight, a noble and proud attendant to the King.[33] It is intriguing just how two words initially meaning the same thing ended up on opposite ends of the spectrum. Praise, which simply meant appraise ‘put a value on’, now means ‘value highly’.[34] One hopes God will understand that people praising him intend to glorify, and not to blasphemously put a price on his worth.

In-depth examinations of the words sophisticated, gay, and literally bring to light interesting insights about initial meanings and the fascinating processes thereafter. Sophisticated first meant ‘adulterated’, ‘not pure or genuine’, and even ‘falsified’; the OED provides an example from 1673 by John Dryden: ‘I love not a sophisticated truth, With an allay of lye in’t.’[35] Nowadays, lies are rarely associated with sophisticated people; though it previously ‘had an evaluative meaning, implying disapproval’, the word ‘has now lost its disapproving sense’.[36] Dick Leith reveals that in the 1960s, the word was ‘used to describe technologically advanced weapons […] with the sense “elaborate” or “highly refined”.’[37] The change was soon apparent and widespread, causing the definitions of ‘refined’ and ‘cultured’ to be identified with people.[38] Denise Robins wrote in 1957: ‘She preferred smooth sophisticated young men like Keith who amused and flattered her.’[39] Interestingly, what is now used as a compliment could easily have offended many just a few centuries ago. Eliot’s description of words changing because of ‘merely chattering’ voices is illustrated by this term,[40] where the original meaning could not resist its modification brought about by consistent and evolving use through a universal epidemic of small talk and chatter.

Gay is widely known as a term for a ‘homosexual’ but many are also aware of its earlier meaning from the fourteenth century: ‘light-hearted’, ‘cheerful’, ‘merry’.[41] Yet most are oblivious to its seventeenth century meaning, where ‘light-heartedness’ was soon ‘interpreted as frivolity’;[42] thus this inclination for ‘social pleasures’[43] resulted in the use of gay to describe ‘people who lived immoral and dissipated lives.’[44] This downward path only progressed rapidly. ‘A gay woman was a whore’ in the nineteenth century, and so it came to be that ‘a gay man’ meant a homosexual.[45] Not only are people ‘scolding’ and ‘mocking’ others with this term, but they ‘assail’ the word itself,[46] shaping its meaning to fit their very purposes of derogatory disdain. Gay is a word tragically endorsed by societal pressures, converting from one of pleasant connotations to one filled with malevolent spite.

© Flickr

© Flickr

The extreme developments that produce completely opposite meanings as originally proposed is most recently beheld in a word familiar to all: literally. What was designed to mean ‘in a literal, exact, or actual sense; not figuratively, allegorically’ now signifies exactly the reverse: ‘metaphorical […] to be taken in the strongest admissible sense’.[47] Michael Israel says this is ‘self-contradictory, insisting on a literal interpretation when […] a figurative one is intended.’[48] Indeed, it is not uncommon for one to hear a friend exclaim, ‘I am literally dying of hunger!’ One would, in response, only nod in detached acknowledgement, but only because of the word’s present status. This is precisely an example of one of many words, as Eliot accurately depicts, which ‘Decay with imprecision’.[49] One can only speculate about its constant misuse despite common knowledge of the paradoxical meanings, and furthermore hypothesise with uncertainty which radical direction it eventually takes.

The reasons for the boundless semantic changes in the English language cannot be simply explained by one sole factor. In fact, studies on semantic change are multiple and ceaseless as there is rarely a unified answer. Then what can prevail as a rationale for, as Eliot poetically illustrates, why words ‘will not stay in place, / Will not stay still’?[50] Encouragingly, there exists a predominantly accepted conclusion about the occurrence of shift in meanings and the motivation behind them. Andreas Blank rephrases the words of George K. Zipf: ‘the main motivation for speaking is to achieve success.’[51] Humans speak with the intention to communicate, to influence, and to accomplish their goals. Elizabeth Closs Traugott and Richard B. Dasher agree, saying the issue is about ‘purposeful negotiation’.[52] Stern reinforces this idea,[53] and even Knud Schibsbye says change occurs when speakers make an effort ‘to get his thoughts across.’[54] It might take ages before somebody discovers the exact motivation behind a changing meaning. But whether the change was gradual or sudden, someone intentionally thought it more convenient or beneficial to use a word in an unconventional way. As for the dispersion of new meanings, the spread can be accredited to people, who upon hearing the new usage believe the word to be the ‘normal way of using speech’ and begin a process of imitation.[55] Thankfully, not everyone doubts and questions the meaning of words used in daily conversations, allowing for the peaceful progression of English.

The repetition of this phenomenon allows the English language to expand, alter, and continually develop. The rich diversity of its vocabulary is astounding upon each renewed observation. It is exciting when meanings change and new words come into play, for it opens up a fresh approach for one to use common words to express common issues in an experimental, inventive manner. As words undergo an evolution, people’s worldviews expand simultaneously. Words incite emotions and have the power to influence tremendously. Meanings have expanded, narrowed, gone through metaphorical and metonymical changes, yet have all undeniably carried power. The study of semantic change will continue for years to come, especially since new meanings are formed even in this modern age. Israel argues that the ‘notorious misuse’ of the word literally is only but ‘a natural development from its orthodox usage’ and that it is ‘a case of semantic change in progress’ that ‘still has a long way to go.’[56] One will intriguingly follow such words to see which paths they take as they develop due to their constant exposure to the complex introductions of innovative usages. Never will people tire of such an elaborately heightening sense of vocabulary. The use of this beautiful English language to communicate our fears, aspirations, and dreams is bound to last for ages.

~

[1] Gustaf Stern, Meaning and Change of Meaning: With Special Reference to the English Language (Connecticut: Greenwood Press, 1975), p. 174.
[2] T. S. Eliot, ‘Burnt Norton’, Four Quartets, last accessed 10 March 2013, <http://www.coldbacon.com/poems/fq.html >.
[3] Stern, Meaning and Change of Meaning, p. 162.
[4] Joachim Grzega and Marion Schöner, ‘English and General Historical Leixcology: Materials for Onomasiology Seminars, Onomasiology Online Monographs vol. 1 (Germany: 2007), p. 41.
[5] Stern, Meaning and Change of Meaning, p. 163.
[6] Albert C. Baugh and Thomas Cable, A History of the English Language, Fifth Edition (Oxon: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 2009), p. 308.
[7] Oxford English Dictionary, Oxford University Press, last accessed 10 March 2013, <http://www.oed.com/viewdictionaryentry/Entry/110598 >.
[8] OED, <http://www.oed.com/viewdictionaryentry/Entry/16879 >.
[9] Baugh and Cable, A History of the English Language, p. 309.
[10] Baugh and Cable, A History of the English Language, p. 309.
[11] OED, <http://www.oed.com/viewdictionaryentry/Entry/78475 >.
[12] Leonard Bloomfield, Language (London: Henderson & Spalding, 1955), p. 425.
[13] The Bible: Authorized King James Version, ed. Robert Carroll and Stephen Prickett (New York: Oxford University Press, 2008), Genesis 1: 30.
[14] Bloomfield, Language, p. 426.
[15] Lyle Campbell, Historical Linguistics: An Introduction (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1998), p. 258.
[16] Campbell, Historical Linguistics, p. 259.
[17] OED, <http://www.oed.com/viewdictionaryentry/Entry/23507 >.
[18] Robert J. Jeffers and Ilse Lehiste, Principles and Methods for Historical Linguistics (Massachusetts: The MIT Press, 1980), p. 128.
[19] Campbell, Historical Linguistics, p. 258.
[20] Bloomfield, Language, p. 427.
[21] Elizabeth Closs Traugott and Richard B. Dasher, Regularity in Semantic Change (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002), p. 27.
[22] OED, <http://www.oed.com/viewdictionaryentry/Entry/31127 >.
[23] Campbell, Historical Linguistics, p. 259.
[24] Grzega and Schöner, ‘English and General Historical Leixcology’, p. 42.
[25] Grzega and Schöner, ‘English and General Historical Leixcology’, p. 42.
[26] Jeffers and Lehiste, Principles and Methods for Historical Linguistics, p. 128.
[27] Thomas Pyles and John Algeo, The Origins and Development of the English Language, 4th edn. (Orlando, FL: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1993), p. 245.
[28] Baugh and Cable, A History of the English Language, p. 310.
[29] Pyles and Algeo, The Origins and Development of the English Language, p. 246.
[30] Campbell, Historical Linguistics, p. 263.
[31] OED, <http://www.oed.com/viewdictionaryentry/Entry/224849 >.
[32] Campbell, Historical Linguistics, p. 261.
[33] Bloomfield, Language, p. 427.
[34] Pyles and Algeo, The Origins and Development of the English Language, p. 246.
[35] OED, <http://www.oed.com/viewdictionaryentry/Entry/184763 >.
[36] Dick Leith, A Social History of English (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul: 1983), pp. 76-7.
[37] Leith, A Social History of English, p. 74.
[38] OED, <http://www.oed.com/viewdictionaryentry/Entry/184763 >.
[39] OED, <http://www.oed.com/viewdictionaryentry/Entry/184763 >.
[40] Eliot, ‘Burnt Norton’, <http://www.coldbacon.com/poems/fq.html >.
[41] OED, <http://www.oed.com/viewdictionaryentry/Entry/77207 >.
[42] Leith, A Social History of English, p. 76.
[43] OED, <http://www.oed.com/viewdictionaryentry/Entry/77207 >.
[44] Leith, A Social History of English, p. 76.
[45] Leith, A Social History of English, p. 76.
[46] Eliot, ‘Burnt Norton’, <http://www.coldbacon.com/poems/fq.html >.
[47] OED, <http://www.oed.com/viewdictionaryentry/Entry/109061 >.
[48] Michael Israel, ‘Literally speaking’, Journal of Pragmatics, 34/4 (April 2002), 423-32, at p. 424.
[49] Eliot, ‘Burnt Norton’, <http://www.coldbacon.com/poems/fq.html >.
[50] Eliot, ‘Burnt Norton’, <http://www.coldbacon.com/poems/fq.html >.
[51] Andreas Blank, ‘Why do new meanings occur? A cognitive typology of the motivations for lexical semantic change’, Historical Semantics and Cognition, ed. Andreas Blank, Peter Koch (Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter, 1999), 61-90, at p. 63.
[52] Traugott and Dasher, Regularity in Semantic Change, p. 25.
[53] Stern, Meaning and Change of Meaning, p. 172.
[54] Knud Schibsbye, Origin and Development of the English Language II: Morphology and Syntax Verbs With an Excursus on Semantic Change (Copenhagen: Nordisk Sprog- og Kulturforlag, 1974), p. 11.
[55] Stern, Meaning and Change of Meaning, p. 177.
[56] Israel, ‘Literally speaking’, p. 424.

~

Bibliography:

Primary Sources:

  • Baugh, Albert C. and Thomas Cable, A History of the English Language, 5th edn. (Oxon: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 2009).
  • Bloomfield, Leonard, Language (London: Henderson & Spalding, 1955).
  • Campbell, Lyle, Historical Linguistics: An Introduction (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1998).
  • Grzega, Joachim and Marion Schöner, ‘English and General Historical Leixcology: Materials for Onomasiology Seminars’, Onomasiology Online Monographs vol. 1 (Germany: 2007).
  • Jeffers, Robert J. and Ilse Lehiste, Principles and Methods for Historical Linguistics (Massachusetts: The MIT Press, 1980).
  • Leith, Dick, A Social History of English (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul: 1983).
  • Oxford English Dictionary, Oxford University Press, last accessed 10 March 2013, <http://www.oed.com/ >.
  • Stern, Gustaf, Meaning and Change of Meaning: With Special Reference to the English Language (Connecticut: Greenwood Press, 1975).

Secondary Literature:

  • Blank, Andreas, ‘Why do new meanings occur? A cognitive typology of the motivations for lexical semantic change’, Historical Semantics and Cognition, ed. Andreas Blank and Peter Koch (Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter, 1999), 61-90.
  • Eliot, T. S., ‘Burnt Norton’, Four Quartets, last accessed 10 March 2013, <http://www.coldbacon.com/poems/fq.html >.
  • Israel, Michael, ‘Literally speaking’, Journal of Pragmatics, 34/4 (April 2002), 423-32.
  • Pyles, Thomas and John Algeo, The Origins and Development of the English Language, 4th edn. (Orlando, FL: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1993).
  • Schibsbye, Knud, Origin and Development of the English Language II: Morphology and Syntax Verbs With an Excursus on Semantic Change (Copenhagen: Nordisk Sprog- og Kulturforlag, 1974).
  • The Bible: Authorized King James Version, ed. Robert Carroll and Stephen Prickett (New York: Oxford University Press, 2008).
  • Traugott, Elizabeth Closs and Richard B. Dasher, Regularity in Semantic Change (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002).

© Justin Lau, 2015

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