Anne Curzan: New word meanings

Transcript of excerpts from The secret life of words by Anne Curzan, Lecture 5: New word meanings

I am struck by the different attitudes that people can have to thinking about semantic change in the past, and semantic change in the present. When we see semantic change happening around us, it can cause us some anxiety, and bring out that sense that the new meanings are wrong, or are somehow degrading the language.

But when we look at semantic change in retrospect, it often can look really interesting and fun, and maybe even a little cool. We think “that word really used to mean thatMyriad used to be related to 10,000?”

Linguists have created categories to talk about semantic change. Now, I have to say that semantic change is a very messy process. Word meanings are pretty fuzzy, and changes in those meanings can create a fairly fuzzy process. But linguists have created these categories to try to capture major trends or tendencies in how words change meaning. I’m going to talk through five major categories, and give you some historical examples. But I hope that as we go, you’ll also think about contemporary examples that show the same kinds of changes.

The five categories that we are going to talk about are generalizationnarrowingamelioration (a word getting better), pejoration (a word getting worse), and metaphorical extension. Now this is just a categorization scheme – no change in a word is ever quite this neat; often a change will involve more than one of these processes.

So let’s start with the first category: semantic generalization. This is when a word’s meaning gets broader over time. A textbook example of this is the word aroma. It used to mean the smell of spices. But now it has come to mean a smell, in general (though I think that for most of us, aroma has to be a good smell – we wouldn’t talk about the sweaty aroma of socks, for example).

The word nepotism is historically related to nephew, going back to Latin nepōs. Its earliest uses in Latin and in English, when it came in, in the 17th-century, are mostly in reference to the Pope showing special favor, or unfair preference, to an illegitimate son. That then generalizes to favoritism for other family members, or others in one’s close circle.

One could argue that a word like decimate has undergone generalization, that it’s not just one-tenth but much more than that. I would say that decimate is also an example of strengthening – that meaning has got much stronger over time.

The second category of semantic change that we’ll talk about is the complement to generalization, and this is semantic narrowing, a word’s meaning getting narrower over time. Again we’ll start with a textbook example, which is the word meat. The word meat used to mean solid food of any kind, and that’s where we get the expression meat and drink. It then specialized down to food that comes from the flesh of animals.

The word wife is also an example of narrowing. That word in Old English meant woman, and it then narrows down to a married woman. That older meaning of  woman is preserved in a phrase like old wives’ tale – which is old women’s tale – and in the word midwife.

The verb starve has also undergone narrowing. That used to mean to die a lingering death – and that death could be of cold, hunger, grief, some other source – and now that’s narrowed down to dying of hunger. That word has also undergone a weakening: “Ugh, I’m starving!” is a weakened form of that verb.

I’ll give you one more example of narrowing. The word man really did used to mean person, in general. And there are examples in Old English of the Adam and Eve story, where there are two menn in the garden of Eden, Adam and Eve, but that word then specified to male person, and that helps explain how the word woman comes from man, because woman comes from wifmann (wif female + mann person, inc female person).

And while we’re talking about people, I’ll just give you one more example of narrowing: girl could generally mean a child of either sex, and now means a female child. It can also be used pejoratively for an adult woman, if you call her a girl. We’ll come back to pejoration in a minute, but before we get to that, let’s talk about its counterpart.

Amelioration is when a word’s meaning improves, it becomes more positive over time. And these examples may surprise you. The word pretty used to mean in Old English something like cunning or crafty. It went from there to mean something like skillful. From there we got to something that was skillfully made. From there we got to attractive, particularly in talking about a woman or a child.

Nice is another example of a word that’s gotten better over time. Nice was borrowed in the 14th century from French, and when we first see it recorded in English it seems to mean something like silly, foolish, or simple. From there, the next meaning is something like dissolute or lascivious, then too extravagant in dress, or finely dressed – and here you can start to see those more positive meanings coming in. Once you’ve got finely dressed, you can get to a meaning that’s something like someone who’s precise about their reputation, or refined in taste. Then we get to refined in general, cultured, associated with polite society, which gets us to the current meaning of virtuous, respectable. That meaning has come out of some quiet negative meanings, coming up to some quite positive ones.

The word geek has also gotten better over time. This word was first cited in English at the end of the 19th century, meaning a person who was regarded as foolish, offensive, or just generally worthless. In the early 20th century, we also see the word geek used for circus freak. But by the mid-20th century geek has changed, and it has come to refer to a person who is unsociable due to a singular pursuit of something, or perhaps a diligent student. By the 1980s, that word had also come to refer to a person who is really knowledgeable about something, especially computers. And from there it’s generalized so that you can be geeky about old movies, you can be geeky about cars, and this is often seen as a good thing.

As I mentioned before, slang has a way of taking words and making them go through amelioration. There are many many words meaning good, including bad, wicked, sick, awesome (and when you think about awesome, you can see that used to mean something like worthy of awe, and now it means that in a good way, as compared with awful, which also means worthy of awe, but that has come to be bad). And that gets us to the fourth category.

Pejoration is when a word’s meaning becomes more negative, and I have to say I think you see this happen more often than amelioration, because once a word gets a negative meaning, that sticks to it, and it will often undergo further pejoration from there. Let me give you some examples.

Notorious used to just mean well-known, often in a good way. But now, of course, notorious means that you are known, or even infamous, for something reprehensible. As I mentioned, awful, coming from worthy of awe, as in “the awful majesty of God”, now means terrible.

I noted earlier that girl has undergone pejoration. It underwent specification, from a child in general to a female child, but when it’s used to refer to adult women, that is a negative thing, especially a woman who for example might work for someone. Girl can also be used to refer to prostitutes, as in call girl.

Now the word wench underwent a similar thing, and this pattern is going to look surprisingly similar. Wench in old English meant child in general. It specifies to girl child. Then it comes to mean servant. Then it comes to mean prostitute, and now can be used for any unpleasant woman.

Many people don’t realize that the word hussy comes from husewif, housewife. It goes from housewife to mean something like a rustic woman or rude woman, and then to a disreputable woman.

Now you’ve probably noticed, as I’ve described those past few words, a fairly similar path of pejoration for many words for women. Girl, wench, hussy–you could add to that maid, which used to mean a young woman or a virgin. It then came to mean servant. Here we see the language reflecting the status of women for centuries, and attitudes toward women. We’ll come back to this in a later lecture, to look at these asymmetrical pairs, like master-mistress, governor-governess, as we talk more about gender in the language.

These first four categories pair up: generalization-narrowing, pejoration-amelioration. In the process we’ve also seen things like strengthening and weakening. A fifth major process of semantic shift is metaphorical extension. This is speakers taking a word’s meaning, and extending it through metaphor – through comparing it to something else. I think this is fascinating because it speaks to human cognition, and I’ll come back to that.

We see metaphorical change with computers and the internet, as we develop new technology. So on our computer screen we have windows, which of course are not real windows; we surf the web, which is a metaphor. Surf, which we are doing on the web, is a metaphor. And I’m fascinated by mouse, because at least with the early mice you can see where the metaphor came from, because the thing had a little tail, and it scurries around. But as these mice become tailless and change shape, at some point people are going to say “Why in the world is that thing called a mouse?”

Other metaphorical extensions: we refer to a page in a book as a leaf, and that’s through a metaphor with a leaf on a tree; a crane in a construction site is a metaphor with the bird, and if you put them side-by-side you can see where that metaphor came from. Computers don’t sleep, but they sleep now, metaphorically. A good-looking man can be called a stud, even though he is not a stallion.

All of those metaphorical extensions are ones that we can re-create once we think about them as metaphors. So they are still alive, or at least kind of alive. But some metaphors have died. For example clue originally meant a ball of thread or yarn, and it was spelled clew. Then, at least in part through a Greek mythology, and the idea of threading one’s way through a maze following thread, we get from thread to the use of clue as any kind of a guide, to any kind of hint.

[At this point, Curzan makes a digression into metaphors and human cognition, which merits its own transcript, here. – L]

There are other, more minor processes in semantic change, such as metonymy, when a part comes to refer to the whole. Pigskin for a football, white collar for a kind of job. Then there are words that change in ways that just defy categorization.

Fathom shows up in English about 1300, meaning to encircle with extended arms (and I just love it that there was a verb that meant to encircle with extended arms). From there it comes to mean to encircle to measure the girth of something. Fathom becomes a noun, a unit of measurement, 6 feet, which is about the length of your arms from the tip of one finger to the tip of the one in your other hand. From there fathom came to mean to measure the depth of something with a fathom line, and through metaphor we get the meaning of to get to the bottom of something, to understand it, to penetrate it.

Some of you may be bothered by recent changes in the meaning of words, like the word literally to mean figuratively rather than word for word. It creates wonderful mental images that make me smile. So someone says “my head exploded”,  and I think “but you’re still here”. I warn students that they may be judged for that usage right now, but I also know from studying the histories of hundreds of words that changes can happen this way, that words can change the way literally has. In this case, in the 18th century, literally came to be used emphatically, so you could have that word for word meaning for emphasis. And once that happened, it could be re-interpreted to mean figuratively.


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