Semantic change (also semantic shift, semantic progression, semantic development, or semantic drift) is the evolution of word usage—usually to the point that the modern meaning is radically different from the original usage. In diachronic (or historical) linguistics, semantic change is a change in one of the meanings of a word. Every word has a variety of senses and connotations, which can be added, removed, or altered over time, often to the extent that cognates across space and time have very different meanings. The study of semantic change can be seen as part of etymology, onomasiology, semasiology, and semantics.
Awful—Originally meant "inspiring wonder (or fear)". Used originally as a shortening for "full of awe", in contemporary usage the word usually has negative meaning.
Demagogue—Originally meant "a popular leader". It is from the Greekdēmagōgós "leader of the people", from dēmos "people" + agōgós "leading, guiding". Now the word has strong connotations of a politician who panders to emotions and prejudice.
Egregious—Originally described something that was remarkably good. The word is from the Latinegregius "illustrious, select", literally, "standing out from the flock", which is from ex—"out of" + greg—(grex) "flock". Now it means something that is remarkably bad or flagrant.
Guy—Guy Fawkes was the alleged leader of a plot to blow up the EnglishHouses of Parliament on 5 November 1605. The day was made a holiday, Guy Fawkes Day, commemorated by parading and burning a ragged, grotesque effigy of Fawkes, known as a Guy. This led to the use of the word guy as a term for any "person of grotesque appearance" and then by the late 1800s—especially in the United States—for "any man", as in, e.g., "Some guy called for you." Over the 20th century, guy has replaced fellow in the U.S., and, under the influence of American popular culture, has been gradually replacing fellow, bloke, chap and other such words throughout the rest of the English-speaking world. In the plural, it can refer to a mixture of genders (e.g., "Come on, you guys!" could be directed to a group of men and women).
Gay—Originally meant (13th century) "lighthearted", "joyous" or (14th century) "bright and showy", it also came to mean "happy"; it acquired connotations of immorality as early as 1637, either sexual e.g., gay woman "prostitute", gay man "womanizer", gay house "brothel", or otherwise, e.g., gay dog "over-indulgent man" and gay deceiver "deceitful and lecherous". In the United States by 1897 the expression gay cat referred to a hobo, especially a younger hobo in the company of an older one; by 1935, it was used in prison slang for a homosexual boy; and by 1951 and clipped to gay, referred to homosexuals.
George Chauncey, in his book Gay New York, would put this shift as early as the late 19th century among a certain "in crowd" knowledgeable of gay night life.
A number of classification schemes have been suggested for semantic change. The most widely accepted scheme in the English-speaking academic world is from Bloomfield (1933):
Narrowing: Change from superordinate level to subordinate level. For example, skyline formerly referred to any horizon, but now in the USA it has narrowed to a horizon decorated by skyscrapers.
Widening: There are many examples of specific brand names being used for the general product, such as with Kleenex. Such uses are known as generonyms: see genericization.
Metaphor: Change based on similarity of thing. For example, broadcast originally meant "to cast seeds out"; with the advent of radio and television, the word was extended to indicate the transmission of audio and video signals. Outside of agricultural circles, very few use broadcast in the earlier sense.
Metonymy: Change based on nearness in space or time, e.g., jaw "cheek" → "mandible".
Synecdoche: Change based on whole-part relation. The convention of using capital cities to represent countries or their governments is an example of this.
Hyperbole: Change from weaker to stronger meaning, e.g., kill "torment" → "slaughter"
Meiosis: Change from stronger to weaker meaning, e.g., astound "strike with thunder" → "surprise strongly".
However, the categorization of Blank (1999) has gained increasing acceptance:
Metaphor: Change based on similarity between concepts, e.g., mouse "rodent" → "computer device".
Metonymy: Change based on contiguity between concepts, e.g., horn "animal horn" → "musical instrument".
Synecdoche: A type of metonymy involving a part to whole relationship, e.g. "hands" from "all hands on deck" → "bodies"
Specialization of meaning: Downward shift in a taxonomy, e.g., corn "grain" → "wheat" (UK), → "maize" (US).
Generalization of meaning: Upward shift in a taxonomy, e.g., hoover "Hoover vacuum cleaner" → "any type of vacuum cleaner".
Cohyponymic transfer: Horizontal shift in a taxonomy, e.g., the confusion of mouse and rat in some dialects.
Antiphrasis: Change based on a contrastive aspect of the concepts, e.g., perfect lady in the sense of "prostitute".
Auto-antonymy: Change of a word's sense and concept to the complementary opposite, e.g., bad in the slang sense of "good".
Auto-converse: Lexical expression of a relationship by the two extremes of the respective relationship, e.g., take in the dialectal use as "give".
Ellipsis: Semantic change based on the contiguity of names, e.g., car "cart" → "automobile", due to the invention of the (motor) car.
Folk-etymology: Semantic change based on the similarity of names, e.g., French contredanse, orig. English country dance.
Blank considers it problematic, though, to include amelioration and pejoration of meaning as well as strengthening and weakening of meaning. According to Blank, these are not objectively classifiable phenomena; moreover, Blank has shown that all of the examples listed under these headings can be grouped into the other phenomena.
Substitution: Change related to the change of an object, of the knowledge referring to the object, of the attitude toward the object, e.g., artillery "engines of war used to throw missiles" → "mounted guns", atom "inseparable smallest physical-chemical element" → "physical-chemical element consisting of electrons", scholasticism "philosophical system of the Middle Ages" → "servile adherence to the methods and teaching of schools"
Analogy: Change triggered by the change of an associated word, e.g., fast adj. "fixed and rapid" ← faste adv. "fixedly, rapidly")
Shortening: e.g., periodical ← periodical paper
Nomination: "the intentional naming of a referent, new or old, with a name that has not previously been used for it" (Stern 1931: 282), e.g., lion "brave man" ← "lion"
Regular transfer: a subconscious Nomination
Permutation: non-intentional shift of one referent to another due to a reinterpretation of a situation, e.g., bead "prayer" → "pearl in a rosary")
Adequation: Change in the attitude of a concept; distinction from substitution is unclear.
This classification does not neatly distinguish between processes and forces/causes of semantic change.
^Grzega (2004) paraphrases these categories (except ellipses and folk etymology) as "similar-to" relation, "neighbor-of" relation, "part-of" relation, "kind-of" relation (for both specialization and generalization), "sibling-of" relation, and "contrast-to" relation (for antiphrasis, auto-antonymy, and auto-converse), respectively
^An example of this comes from Old English: meat (or rather mete) referred to all forms of solid food while flesh (flæsc) referred to animal tissue and food (foda) referred to animal fodder; meat was eventually restricted to flesh of animals, then flesh restricted to the tissue of humans and food was generalized to refer to all forms of solid food Jeffers & Lehiste (1979:130)
Blank, Andreas (1997), Prinzipien des lexikalischen Bedeutungswandels am Beispiel der romanischen Sprachen (Beihefte zur Zeitschrift für romanische Philologie 285), Tübingen: Niemeyer
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Blank, Andreas; Koch, Peter (1999), "Introduction: Historical Semantics and Cognition", in Blank, Andreas; Koch, Peter, Historical Semantics and Cognition, Berlin/New York: Mouton de Gruyter, pp. 1–16
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