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7 February 2011
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One word used out of context in the U.K. that I find very annoying is brilliant. When I lived in England the word meant shining or glittering. It would be a very dull language though if it didn't change with time. Veronica, Canada
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Semantic change
Intrusive 'R'

Change in meaning
Semantic changes are chaotic - but linguists are trying to pin them down.

When I was a child, my otherwise enlightened family had a stuffed deer's head called Percy. Because I never heard any evidence to the contrary, I believed that the word percy referred to any stuffed animal's head. It was just another word in my vocabulary. It wasn't until I went to a museum quite recently and commented to my boyfriend's family, "What a lot of percies!" that I discovered to my embarrassment what had happened.

My one-off mistake hasn't caused a widespread change in the use of the word Percy, but when lots of children all make the same error, their version can become the norm.

table top
play audio Listen to three generations of a Devon family talk about new words. More...
A good example is the word bead, which came from the Old English word gebed (prayer). Watching someone with a rosary 'counting their beads', children inferred that these 'bead' things must be the little round objects. Since, in their experience, beads and prayers typically went hand in hand, many children never had any sign that their inference wasn't right, and their new meaning became the normal one.

Words are always changing their meanings, and not always in the drastic ways I've described above. Change is often more subtle, more gradual and less easily explained.

"The word gay is not intrinsically most suited to meaning 'bright and happy' or 'homosexual' or anything else."

To understand how meanings alter, it's important to be aware that words and the concepts they're attached to are two separate things. That sounds obvious, but it's easy to lose sight of the fact that words are essentially arbitrary. There's no reason beyond convention why a table should be called table or Tisch or mesa. Equally, the word gay is not intrinsically most suited to meaning 'bright and happy' or 'homosexual' or anything else.

Semantic change appears irregular, chaotic even, because it's closely tied to changing social values, politics, technology and culture. It's hard to predict when or how a word's meaning might change.

Sometimes words become more specific in their meaning. Meat used to mean any kind of food, for example. Sometimes they become more general. Batch used to refer only to a quantity of bread, but now it can be a quantity of anything produced at the same time.

Words' connotations often become more positive. Tragic, for instance, as well as describing things like premature death, natural disasters and so forth, is now commonly used to describe a missed goal.

The opposite also happens. The Old English word hros, which originally meant a large, fine horse, later came to refer to any old horse, because all proud owners applied the word to their beloved animal.

Many semantic changes can be attributed to metaphor. If speakers use the same comparison repeatedly, that can become the main meaning of a word. Veronica Marissen from Canada has noticed this happening: "One word used out of context in the UK that I find very annoying is brilliant. When I lived in England the word meant 'shining' or 'glittering'."

Linguists are yet to come up with rules or detailed explanations of semantic change, but George Lakoff and Mark Johnson (1980), Elizabeth Closs Traugott (1985 & 89) and others have noticed that some trends seem to hold true across many languages.

Words to do with hearing often gain new meanings to do with vision (a loud shirt) and words to do with touch gain meanings to do with taste (a sharp gooseberry). Words which refer to physical actions (grasp a big stick) often come to refer to internal thought processes (grasp the issues involved). Religious terminology is frequently borrowed into other domains. Generally, meanings have a tendency to move from the concrete to the abstract.

Further reading
Language Change: Progress or Decay by Jean Aitchison

On Language Change: The Invisible Hand in Language by Rudi Keller (translated by Brigitte Nerlich)

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