Semantic Changes

A causal relationship is obvious in the following development: ModE fear < ME feere < OE fær, fēr 'danger', 'unexpected attack'. States and properties serve as names for objects and people possessing them: youth, age, authorities, forces. The name of the action can serve to name the result of the action: ModE kill < ME killen 'to hit on the head', ModE stay || Germ schlagen.. Emotions may be named by the movements that accompany them: to frown, to start.

There are also the well-known instances of symbol for thing symbolized: the crown for 'monarchy'; the instrument for the product: 'hand 'handwriting'; receptacle for content, as in the word kettle, and some others. Words for the material from which an article is made are often used to denote the particular article: glass, iron, copper, nickel are well known examples. The pars pro toto where the name of a part is applied to the whole may be illustrated by such military terms as the royal horse for 'cavalry' and foot for 'infantry', and the expressions like / want to have a word with you. The reverse process is observed when OE cēol 'a ship' develops among other variants into keel 'a barge load of coal'.

A place of its own within metonymical change is occupied by the so-called functional change. The type has its peculiarities: in this case the shift is between names of things substituting one another in human practice. Thus, the early instrument for writing was a feather or more exactly a quill (OE pen, from OFr penne, from It penna, from Lat. penna 'feather'). We write with fountain-pens that are made of different materials and have nothing in common with feathers except the function, but the name remains. The name rudder comes from OE roper 'oar' || Germ Ruder 'oar'. The shift of meaning is due to the shift of function: the steering was formerly achieved by an oar. The steersman was called pilot; with the coming of aviation one who operates the flying controls of an aircraft was also called pilot. For more cases of functional change see also the semantic history of the words: filter, pocket, spoon, stamp, sail.

Common names may be derived from proper names also metonymically, as in macadam and diesel, so named after their inventors.

Many physical and technical units are named after great scientists: volt, ohm, ampere, watt, etc.

There are also many instances in political vocabulary when the place of some establishment is used not only for the establishment itself or its staff but also for its policy: the White House, the Pentagon, Wall Street, Downing Street, Fleet Street.

Examples of geographic names turning into common nouns to name the goods exported or originating there are exceedingly numerous, e.g.

astrakhan, bikini, boston, cardigan, china, tweed.

Garments came to be known by the names of those who brought them into fashion: mackintosh, raglan, wellingtons.




4. Other types of semantic changes.

Following the lead of literary criticism linguists have often adopted terms of rhetoric for other types of semantic change, besides metaphor and metonymy. These are: hyperbole, litotes, irony, e u p h e m i s m. In all these cases the same warning that was given in connection with metaphors and metonymy must be kept in mind: namely, there is a difference between these terms as understood in literary criticism and in lexicology. Hyperbole (from Gr huperballō 'exceed') is an exaggerated statement not meant to be understood literally but expressing an intensely emotional attitude of the speaker to what he is speaking about. The emotional tone is due to the illogical character in which the direct denotative and the contextual emotional meanings are combined.

A very good example is chosen by I. R. Galperin from Byron, and one cannot help borrowing it:

When people say "I've told you fifty times," They mean to scold and very often do,

The reader will note that Byron's intonation is distinctly colloquial, the poet is giving us his observations concerning colloquial expressions, So the .hyperbole here is not poetic but linguistic.

The same may be said about expressions like: It's absolutely maddening, You'll be the death of me, I hate troubling you, It's monstrous, It's a nightmare, A thousand pardons, A thousand thanks, Haven't seen you for ages, I'd give the world to, I shall be eternally grateful, I'd love to do it, etc.

The most important difference between a poetic hyperbole and a linguistic one lies in the fact that the former creates an image, whereas in the latter the denotative meaning quickly fades out and the corresponding exaggerating words serve only as general signs of emotion without specifying the emotion itself. Some of the most frequent emphatic words are: absolutely! awfully! terribly! lovely! magnificent! splendid! and so on.

The reverse figure is called litotes (from Gr lītos 'plain', 'meagre') or understatement. It. might be defined as expressing the affirmative by the negation of its contrary: e.g. not bad or not half bad for 'good', not small for 'great', no coward for 'brave'. Some understatements do not contain negations: rather decent; I could do with a cup of tea. It is, however, doubtful whether litotes should be considered under the heading of semantic change at all, because as a rule it creates no permanent change in the semantic structure of the word concerned. The purpose of understatement is not to deceive but to produce a stronger impression on the hearer.

Also taken from rhetoric is the term irony, i.e. expression of one's meaning by words of opposite meaning, especially a simulated adoption of the opposite point of view for the purpose of ridicule. One of the meanings of the adjective nice is 'bad', 'unsatisfactory'; it is marked off as ironical and illustrated by the example: You've got us into a nice mess! The same may be said about the adjective pretty: A pretty mess you've made of it!

Changes depending on the social attitude to the object named, connected with social evaluation and emotional tone, are called amelioration and pejoration of meaning. Amelioration or elevation is a semantic shift undergone by words due to their referents coming up the social scale. For instance OE cwen 'a woman'> ModE queen, OE cniht 'a young servant' > ModE knight. The words steward and stewardess (the passengers' attendant on ships and airliners) have undergone a great amelioration. Steward < OE stigweard from stigo 'a sty' and weard 'a ward', dates back from the days when the chief wealth of the Saxon landowner was his pigs, of whom the stigweard had to take care. The meaning of some words has been elevated through associations with aristocratic life or town life. This is true about such adjectives as civil, chivalrous, urbane.

The reverse process is pejoration or degradation; it involves a lowering in social scale connected with the appearance of a derogatory and scornful emotive tone reflecting the disdain of the upper classes towards the lower ones. A knave < OE cnafa \\ Germ Knabe meant at first 'boy', then 'servant', and finally became a term of abuse and scorn. Another example of the same kind is blackguard. In the lord's retinue of Middle Ages served among others the guard of iron pots and other kitchen utensils black with soot. From the immoral features attributed to these servants by their masters comes the present scornful ' meaning of the word blackguard. A similar history is traced for the words boor, churl, clown, villain.

Euphemism (Gr euphemismos from eu 'well' and pheme 'speak') is the substitution of words of mild or vague connotations for expressions rough, unpleasant or for some other reasons unmentionable.

Within the diachronic approach the phenomenon has been repeatedly classed by many linguists as taboo. This standpoint is hardly acceptable for modern European languages. With primitive peoples taboo is a prohibition meant as a safeguard against supernatural forces. Names of ritual objects or animals were taboo because the name was regarded as the equivalent of what was named. S. Ullmann returns to the conception - of taboo several times illustrating it with propitiatory names given in the early periods of language development to such objects of superstitious fear as the bear (whose name originally meant 'brown') and the weasel. He treats both examples as material of comparative semantics. The taboo influence behind the circumlocutions used to name these animals becomes quite obvious when the same phenomenon is observed in similar names in various other languages. There is no necessity to cite them here as they are given in any book on general linguistics. It should be borne in mind that taboo has historical relevance. No such opposition as that between a direct and a propitiatory name for an animal, no matter how dangerous, can be found in present-day English.

With peoples of developed culture, euphemism is intrinsically different, has nothing to do with taboo and is dictated by social usage, moral tact and etiquette. Cf. queer 'mad', deceased 'dead', perspire v 'sweat'.

From the semantical point of view euphemism is important because meanings with unpleasant connotations appear in words formerly neutral, as a result of their repeated use instead of other words that are for some reason unmentionable.

The material of this chapter shows that semantic changes are not arbitrary. They proceed in accordance with the logical and psychological laws of thought, otherwise changed words would never be understood and could not serve the purpose of communication. The various attempts at classification undertaken by traditional linguistics, although inconsistent ( and often subjective, are useful, since they permit the linguist to find his way about an immense accumulation of semantic facts. However, they say nothing or almost nothing about the causes of these changes.


In comparison with classifications of semantic change the problem of their causes appears neglected. Opinions on this point are scattered through a great number of linguistic works and have apparently never -been collected into anything complete. And yet a thorough understanding of the phenomena involved .in semantic change is impossible unless the whys and wherefores become known. This is of primary importance as it may lead eventually to a clearer, interpretation of language development. The vocabulary is the most flexible part of the language and it is precisely its semantic aspect that responds most readily to every change in the human activity in whatever sphere it may happen to take place.

The causes of semantic changes may be grouped under two main headings, linguistic and extralinguistic ones. Of these the first group has suffered much greater neglect in the past and it is not surprising therefore that far less is known of it than of the second. It deals with changes due to the constant interdependence of vocabulary units in language and speech, such as differentiation between synonyms, changes taking place in connection with ellipsis and with fixed contexts, changes resulting from ambiguity in certain contexts, and some other cases.

Semantic change due to the differentiation of synonyms is a gradual change observed in the course of language history, sometimes, but not necessarily, involving the semantic assimilation of loan words. Consider, for example, the words time and tide. They used to be synonyms. Then tide took on its more limited application to the periodically shifting waters, and time alone is used in the general sense.

Another example of semantic change involving synonymic differentiation is the word twist. In OE it was a noun, meaning 'a rope' whereas the verb thrawan (now throw) meant both 'hurl' and 'twist'. Since the appearance in the Middle English of the verb twisten ('twist') the first verb lost this meaning. But threw in its turn influenced the development of casten (cast), a Scandinavian borrowing. Its primary meaning 'hurl', 'throw' is now present only in some set expressions. Cast keeps its old meaning in such phrases as cast a glance, cast lots, cast smth. in one's teeth. Twist has very many meanings, the latest being 'to dance the twist'

Fixed context may be regarded as another linguistic factor in semantic change. Both factors are at work in the case of token. When brought into competition with the loan word sign, it became restricted in use to a number of set expressions such as love token, token of respect and so became specialized in meaning. Fixed context has this influence not only in phrases but in compound words as well. OE mete meant 'food', its descendant meat refers only to flesh food except in the set expression meat and drink and the compound sweetmeats.

No systematic treatment has so far been offered for the syntagmatic semantic changes depending on the context. But such cases do exist showing that investigation of the problem is important.

One of these is ellipsis. The qualifying words of a frequent phrase may be omitted: sale comes to be used for cut-price sale, propose for to propose marriage, to be expecting for to be expecting a baby. Or vice versa, the kernel word of the phrase may seem redundant: minerals for mineral waters. Due to ellipsis starve which originally meant 'die' (cf. Germ sterben) came to substitute the whole phrase die of hunger, and also began to mean 'suffer from lack of food' and even in colloquial use 'to feel hungry'. Moreover as there are many words with transitive and intransitive variants naming cause and result, starve came to mean 'to cause to perish with hunger'.

English has a great variety of these regular coincidences of different aspects, alongside with cause and result, we could consider the coincidence of subjective and objective, active and passive aspects especially frequent in adjectives. E.g. hateful means 'exciting hatred' and 'full of hatred'; curious'strange' and 'inquisitive'; pitiful 'exciting compassion' and 'compassionate'. Compare the different use of the words doubtful and healthy in the following: to be doubtful :: a doubtful advantage, to be healthy :: a healthy climate.

The extralinguistic causes are determined by the social nature of the language: they are observed in changes of meaning resulting from the development of the notion expressed and the thing named and by the appearance of new notions and things. In other words, extralinguistic causes of semantic change are connected with the development of the human mind as it moulds reality to conform with its needs.

Languages are powerfully affected by social, political, economic, cultural and technical change. The influence of those factors upon linguistic phenomena is studied by sociolinguistics. It shows that social factors can influence even structural features of linguistic units, terms of science, for instance, have a number of specific features as compared to words used in other spheres of human activity.

The word being a linguistic realization of notion, it changes with the progress of human consciousness. This process is reflected in the development of lexical meaning. As the human mind achieves an ever more exact understanding of the world of reality and the objective relationships that characterize it, the notions become more and more exact reflections of real things. The history of the social, economic and political life of people, the progress of culture and science bring about changes in notions and things influencing the semantic aspect of language. For instance, OE eorpe meant 'the ground under people's feet', 'the soil' and 'the world of man' as opposed to heaven that was supposed to be inhabited first by Gods and later on, with the spread of Christianity, by God, his saints and the souls of the dead. With the progress of science earth came to mean the third planet from the sun and the knowledge of it was constantly enriched.

The word space from the meanings of 'extension' or 'intervening distance' came to mean 'the limitless expanse in which everything exists' and more recently came to be used especially in the meaning of 'outer space'. Atoms (Gr. atomos 'indivisible' from a 'not' and tomos 'cut') were formerly thought to be indivisible smallest particles of matter and were usually associated in layman's speech with smallness. The word could be metaphorically used in the meaning of 'a tiny creature'. When atoms were found to be made up of a positively charged nucleus round which negatively charged electrons revolve, the notion of an atom brought about connotations of discrete (discontinuous) character of matter. With the advances made since science has found ways of releasing the energy hidden in the splitting of the atomic nucleus, the notion is accompanied with the idea of immense potentialities present, as, for instance, in the phrase Atoms for peace. Since the advent of the atomic bomb the adjective atomic distinctly connotes in the English language with the threat of a most destructive warfare (atomic bomb, atomic warfare).

The tendency to use technical imagery is increasing in every language, thus the expression to spark off in chain reaction is almost international. Some expressions tend to become somewhat obsolete: the English used to talk of people being galvanized into activity, or going full steam ahead but the phrases sound out dated now.

The changes of notions and things named go hand in hand. As they are conditioned by changes in the economic, social, political and cultural history of the people, the extralinguistic causes of semantic change might be conveniently subdivided in accordance with these. Social relationships are at work in the cases of elevation and pejoration of meaning discussed in the previous section where the attitude of the upper classes to their social inferiors determined the strengthening of emotional tone among the semantic components of the word.

Euphemisms may be dictated by publicity needshence ready-tailored and ready-to-wear clothes instead of ready-made. The influence of mass-advertising on language is growing; it is felt in every level of the language. Innovations possible in advertising are of many different types. A kind of orange juice, for instance, is called Tango. The justification of the name is given in the advertising text as follows: Get this different tasting Sparkling Tango. Tell you why: made from whole oranges. Taste those oranges. Taste the tang in Tango. Tingling tang, bubbles sparks. You drink it straight. Goes down great. Taste the tang in Tango. New Sparkling Tango. The reader will see for himself how many expressive connotations are introduced by the salesman in this commercial name in an effort to attract the buyer's attention.

Economic causes are obviously at work in the semantic development o! the word wealth. It first meant 'well-being', 'happiness' from weal from OE wela whence well. This original meaning is preserved in the compounds commonwealth and commonweal. The present meaning became possible due to the role played by money both in feudal and bourgeois society. The chief wealth of the early inhabitants of Europe being the cattle, OE feoh means both 'cattle' and 'money', likewise Goth faihu; Lat. pecu meant 'cattle' and pecunia meant 'money'. ME fee-house is both a cattle-shed and a treasury. The present-day English fee most frequently means the price paid for services to a lawyer or a physician. It appears to develop jointly from the above mentioned OE feoh and the Anglo-French fe, fie, fief, probably of the same origin, meaning 'a recompense' and 'a feudal tenure'. This modern meaning is obvious in the following example: Physicians of the utmost Fame/Were called at once; but when they came/ They answered as they took their fees,/ "There is no cure for this disease." (BELLOC)


We have dialled in detail with various types of semantic change. This is necessary not only because of the interest the various cases present in themselves but also because a thorough knowledge of these possibilities helps one to understand the semantic structure of English words at the present stage of their development. The development and change of the semantic structure of a word is always a source of qualitative and quantitative development of the vocabulary.

The constant development of industry, agriculture, trade and transport bring into being new objects and new notions. Words to name them are either borrowed or created from material already existing in the language and it often happens that new meanings are thus acquired by old words.



1.     Rinaburg R. A course in Modern English. Moscow 1976.

2.     Griberg S. I. Exercises in Modern English. Moscow 1980.

3.     Antrushina. English Lexicology. 1985.

4.     Kunin A. English Lexicology Moscow 1972.

5.     Mednikova E. M. Seminars in English Lexicology Moscow Vyshaja shkola 1978.

6.     Cruise. Lexical semantic Cambridge University press 1995.

7.     English Word Formation Cambridge University press 1996.

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