9 Most Important Types of Semantic Changes in “English”
It should be clearly borne in mind, however, that whenever someone describes a highly complex phenomenon like historical changes in the meanings of words in terms of a neat classification, the description tends to be an act of oversimplification and the classes in terms of which the description is made tend not to be mutually exclusive. With this note of caution we can now discuss the changes in the meanings of English words as follows:
In certain cases, the meaning of a word is enlarged in its scope. In such cases the denotation of the word becomes wider and the new meaning of the word refers to a much wider range of people, objects or activities than before. In historical semantics, this phenomenon is known as extension or widening. The word allergy, for example, was first introduced as a medical term.
If a person became ill because of eating or coming in contact with something which did not cause any illness in others, he was said to be allergic to that material. During the last few years the meaning of this word has been extended in its scope and now it refers to a strong dislike for something.
In Middle English, the word bridde, for example, meant “young birdling”. Bird, the Modern English form of that word, refers to birds in general, young or old alike. The word butcher has its origin in bouc, the French word for a goat and originally the word butcher referred to someone who slew the goat.
These days this word is used for someone who slaughters, cuts up and sells animals like goats, sheep and cows (and not necessarily only goats) and sells meat. The etymological meaning of the word companion is “someone who (shares) bread with” but in modern English this word is used for someone who you spend time with, someone who shares the load of your professional work or your joys and sorrows or the boredom of your journey (and not necessarily bread). At one time the word go meant “walk”. This is evident from the following use of this word by Bunyan:
I am resolved to run when I can, to go when I cannot run, and to creep when I cannot go.
In modern English usage, go means “move from one place to another” and the use of this verb is considered appropriate irrespective of whether one walks or travels by train or by bus. The word junk was originally used by sailors to refer to old and discarded ropes. In present-day English this word has acquired a much wider range of meaning and can be used for anything that is considered useless.
In early Modern English the word rubbish meant “rubble” but in present-day English its meaning has become much wider and now it refers to anything that is worthless. Originally, the word sail was used in the context of a boat moved by the wind but the meaning of this word has been extended and now it can also be used in the context of a steamship or a ship propelled by a diesel engine.
The English word uncle was derived, through French, from the Latin word avunculus, which meant “the mother’s brother”, patruus being the word for “father’s brother”. In Modern English, however, the word uncle refers not only to one’s mother’s brother but also to one’s father’s brother. The word virtue is another example. This word is derived from the Latin word virtus, which meant” manliness”. The Latin word virtus is a derivative of Latin vir from which words like virile and virility are derived. Virtue, a modern derivative of vir, refers not only to the quality of manliness but to good moral qualities in general.
Narrowing is the opposite of extension. If the area of the meaning of a word becomes smaller than before, it is known as narrowing. At one time the word accident, for example, was a word for any chance event, for anything that happened all of a sudden but nowadays this word is generally used for an unfortunate and undesirable chance event. The word corpse is a graphic variation of the Old French cors, which meant “body”.
The medial p and the final e in this word were inserted much later. The original meaning of this word can still be seen in the word corpus borrowed from Latin. With the passage of time the meaning of this word became restricted in its scope and in present-day English it is used only for dead bodies. In Old English the word deor meant “animal” but in modern English it refers to wild animals of a particular species.
The noun desert referring to a sandy area with little or no rain and the verb desert meaning “leave, abandon, forsake” are both derived from the same Latin root and initially the noun desert was used for any place which had been abandoned for any reason. In Modern English usage, however, this word is used only for those uninhabited places where there is little or no rain. In Latin, the word doctor was used for a teacher, for someone who was known for his scholarship, for his expertise in any one of the branches of knowledge.
Now the word is used for someone who has specialized in medicine or someone who has a research degree like a Ph.D. In Old English and early Middle English, the word girl was used either for a youth or for a maiden but later the meaning of this word was narrowed and its use was restricted to a female child.
In Old English, the word hund referred to dogs in general but in Modern English, the meaning of this word has been restricted and now it refers only to hunting dogs of a particular breed. Liquor and liquid are both derived from the same Latin root and in its early use the word liquor was used for any liquid substance but since about the eighteenth century this word is used mostly for alcoholic drinks. The Old English word mete meant “food”.
That old meaning of this word is still preserved in the word “sweetmeat” and in old proverbs like “One man’s meat is another man’s poison”. Originally, the word science meant “knowledge” but since about the 14th century this word has been used in the restricted sense of technical knowledge obtained on the basis of observation and experiment. Until about the end of the fourteenth century an undertaker was a helper, someone who undertook to do anything that he was asked to do. In present-day English, the word undertaker is used only for a funeral undertaker.
If a word acquires certain pleasant connotations that it did not have before, the semantic change in the meaning of that word is known as amelioration. Some philologists use the term elevation instead of amelioration. In Greek, the word angel meant “messenger”.
It was because of the influence of Christianity that the meaning of this word was elevated from “messenger” to “God’s messenger”. The word chancellor is derived from the Late Latin cancellarius meaning “porter, secretary”.
In Latin this word was used for a person stationed at the bar of a law court. But nowadays the Chancellor of the Exchequer is the person having the highest responsibility for finance in Britain and a vice-chancellor is the head of a university.
The etymology of the word constable tells us that at one time a constable was nothing more than a stable boy. Even nowadays this word is used for a policeman of the lowest rank but as it has lost all its earlier connotations of the stable, its present meaning can legitimately be taken to be an example of amelioration.
In the fourteenth century, the word fond meant “foolish, silly” but in present-day English this word has acquired the elevated meaning of “having a strong liking for”. The word knight is a good example of this semantic phenomenon.
In Modern English this word is a word of great respect in the sense that in Britain the title of knighthood is conferred only on a person who has made remarkable achievements in his field or has done something remarkable for his country.
The person who has been knighted is entitled to use “Sir” before his name. The Old English ancestor of this word did not have that elevated meaning, however. The word cnihit, the Old English form of knight, meant only “boy”.
Even now the German word knecht means “servant”. Similarly, in popular Latin the word marshal was used for a servant who looked after horses. In the United States these days a marshal is a police officer who looks after a particular area.
In many other countries the word marshal is used for the highest officer of the army or the air force. The word minister is another good example of amelioration. Very few ministers feeling proud of their status in society these days know that the word used for them is originally a Latin word and that in Latin it meant “servant”.
In the 13th century the word nice meant “foolish, ignorant”. During the last few centuries the meaning of this word has undergone a radical change and nowadays it is used in the case of pleasant and agreeable persons and things. In Greek, paradise was a word for a park, a garden. Because of the impact of Christianity, the meaning of this word was elevated, like the meaning of angel, and now the word means “heaven, the place where good people hope to go after their death”.
If with the passage of time a word acquires a pejorative meaning, the change in the meaning of that word is called degeneration. Some philologists use the term deterioration for such semantic changes. In Old English the word crafty meant “skilful” but during the last few centuries the meaning of this word has been drastically changed and nowadays this word is used for cunning people, people skilled in deceiving others.
Until about the 13th century the word cunning was used for a learned person. In the 14th century the meaning of this word underwent a slight modification and was used for persons who were skilful, but not necessarily wise. In Modern English this word is used for those who are clever at deceiving others. The word knave is one of the numerous examples of this phenomenon in English. In Modern English the word knave means a “dishonest man”.
In Old English this word did not have an elevated meaning either but it did not have at that time the pejorative connotations that it has these days. The word cnafa, the Old English ancestor of this word, meant “boy, servant”.
In Old English, the word lust meant “desire” but during the last few centuries it has acquired a pejorative connotation and in present-day English it is used for intemperate desires, particularly the desire for sex.
In Old English the word villain was used for peasants who lived a simple and rustic life in villages but in Modern English it is a word used for scoundrels. Like notice, notorious is derived from the Latin root notus, which means “known”. From the etymology of this word we can deduce that at one time it meant “well-known” and that it did not have any pejorative connotations at that time.
In many cases the change of meaning is describable in terms of intensification, i.e., change from a weaker to a stronger meaning. During the Middle English period the word disease meant “lack of ease, discomfort”. Later on this word acquired a greater intensity of meaning and nowadays it is used as a synonym for “illness”.
The Old English word for kill, for example, meant “strike, beat, torment”. It was in the 14th century that this word acquired the more intensive meaning of “put to death”. Some linguists (e.g., Bloomfield 1933:426) use the term litotes (a traditional term of rhetoric) for this type of semantic change.
The change in the semantic content of certain words can be understood in terms of a movement from a stronger to a weaker meaning. Nowadays, if we say that we are astonished or astounded, we mean to say that we are amazed.
The word astonish, like the word astound, expresses a high degree of surprise but nothing more than surprise. Similarly, when we say that we were stunned to hear the news of someone’s sudden death, we mean to say that we are shocked to hear that news. To be stunned is to be shocked or pained; the word stun does not mean anything stronger than that.
If we trace the etymology of these three words, we will find that each of these three words has been derived from the Latin root tonare, which means “thunder”. Thus it can be deduced from the etymology of these words that at one time their meaning was much more intense than what it is today. To be astonished (or astounded or stunned) at that time was to be struck by thunder. In Old English the word sona meant “immediately”.
The modern English word soon has lost that sense of urgency and immediacy and has acquired the milder meaning of “in a short time”. In early Modern English the adverb presently meant “at once, immediately”. Much of the intensity of this word has now been lost and nowadays it has acquired the weaker meaning of “soon, in a short time from now”. During the
Elizabethan period naughty meant “wicked, evil” and annoy meant “harm, injure”. The intensity of the meanings of these words has considerably faded since then and in present-day English naughty has acquired the milder meaning of “disobedient” as in the case of “naughty children”. In expressions like “After forty, naughty”, it only refers to a kind of pleasant sinfulness or shamelessness.
Similarly, annoy has acquired the weaker meaning of “displease, make angry”. Awful and horrible have undergone a similar weakening of meaning and in expressions like “awful weather” or “a horrible man” they express only a sense of disapproval and displeasure with no feeling of genuine awe or horror.
The word pest, the diminutive of pestilence, is another good example of this semantic phenomenon. In Modern English this word is used for insects, rats or other small animals like snails which damage crops or food supplies. The etymology of this word can be traced back to the Latin word pestis, which meant “plague”.
In the sixteenth century the word pest was used in that etymological sense only. Its meaning changed with the passage of time and its present-day meaning is a much weaker form of its original meaning. During the fourteenth century, quite meant “completely, entirely”.
In expressions like “I quite agree with you” that early meaning of this word is still retained. In present-day expressions like “quite good” (meaning “good to a certain extent”), we find a weakened version of that early meaning.
In certain cases the meaning of a part is shifted to the meaning of the whole or the meaning of the whole is shifted to the meaning of one of its parts. Bloomfield (1933:427) uses the term synecdoche, a term used in traditional rhetoric, for semantic changes of this type.
The word town, for example, is the Modern English version of the Old English word tun derived from the Old High Germanic word tunaz, which meant “fence, hedge”. Fences were parts of towns. With the passage of time the meaning of the part was transferred to the meaning of the whole. Redbreast is another good example.
This word is used for the bird called robin, though, literally, it refers only to a part of its body. This kind of semantic change can be illustrated also with the help of the secondary meanings of certain words referring to parts of the human body.
The primary meaning of the word hand, for example, is “the extremity of the arm including the palm and the fingers”. Over the years this word has developed a number of secondary meanings, one of the secondary meanings being “a person, an individual man or woman”.
In all probability it was in seventeenth century writings that this meaning of the word appeared for the first time. The use of this word in sentences like the following can be quoted as examples of this meaning.
The hand that rocks the cradle rules the world.
The devil finds work for idle hands to do.
As is evident from the following examples, some other words for parts of the human body have also developed the meaning of the whole.
A faint heart can never win a fair lady.
Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown.
In some cases the meaning of an object changes in such a way as to be applicable to another object associated with it. In Old English the word ceace, for example, meant “jaw”. The meaning of this word as well as its spelling has changed during the last few centuries and it has been handed down to us in the form of the Modern English word cheek. Similarly, the word joue in Old French meant cheek.
The meaning of this word changed as it moved from French to English and from the early stages of English to Modern English. The English word jaw is the Modern English descendant of that word in Old French. So the word that meant “jaw” during the Old English period means cheek in Modern English and the word that meant “cheek” in Old French means “jaw” in Modern English.
The English word bead is another example of this kind of semantic change. Bedu, the Old English ancestor of this word, meant “prayer”. It was customary during the medieval period, as it is at many places even now, to count one’s prayer with the help of a string of beads.
The word beads acquired its present meaning because of this close association between beads and prayers at that time. Something similar happened in the case of the word horn. For a long time during the Old English period, horns of animals were used for making musical instruments.
Because of this close association between the musical instrument and the material out of which the instrument was made, a shift of meaning took place and horn became the name of the musical instrument itself. Nowadays, horns are made of brass or some other metal and not of the horns of animals but the word horn continues to be used for a musical instrument of a certain type. The history of the word horn is an example of extension.
ix. Metaphorical Transfer:
In many cases the shift of meaning operates through a metaphor in the sense that the new meaning of the word is a metaphorical extension of its old meaning. The word bitter, for example, is derived from the Germanic word “bitan”, which meant “bite”.
The sense of biting was later transferred metaphorically to the word bitter. So when we say that a particular item of food is bitter in taste we say in that metaphorical sense that that item of food bites us when we eat it. Similarly, a hippopotamus (hippos = horse; potamos = river) is so called because to the people of ancient Greece it looked like a horse.
A leopard (leon = lion; pardos = tiger) is so called because the people in ancient Greece thought it to be partly like a tiger and partly like a lion. The Latin word aster means “star”. The meaning of this word was metaphorically transferred to the name of the flower called aster. This flower is so called because it looks like a star. Daisy is a modernized form of an Old English expression meaning “day’s eye”. Daisies are so called because they open their petals in the morning and close them in the evening.
The word carnation is derived from the Latin word caro, which means “flesh”. The carnation is so called because it has the colour of flesh. A pansy is a garden plant which gives flowers with very large, rounded petals. The word pensee is the French word for “thoughtful”. Pansies are so called because they look like thoughtful faces.