English Language


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Narrowing in Semantics

The study of semantics involves understanding the meaning and changes of words, and one phenomenon that falls under this is narrowing. It is important to grasp this concept to fully comprehend semantics and semantic change.

Also known as 'semantic specialisation', narrowing refers to the process where a word's meaning becomes more specific over time. This gradual shift is a common occurrence and is the opposite of semantic broadening, where a word's meaning becomes more generalised.

Narrowing is often influenced by external factors outside of the language system, known as extra-linguistic factors. This type of semantic change happens naturally and slowly over time, often caused by socio-cultural and psychological reasons. Significant events like revolutions, wars, and civil rights movements can bring about semantic narrowing, as seen in the changes of word meanings during the Industrial Revolution.

An example of this is the word 'engine', which originated from Old French 'egin' and Middle English 'egyn'. Originally used to describe war machines, its meaning narrowed to refer to mechanical devices with a specific purpose after the rise of industrialization.

Another cause of narrowing is through widespread language changes that can alter how a word is perceived and understood. This commonly happens when a word becomes taboo or is used as a euphemism, like using 'passed away' instead of 'died'.

A good example of this is the word 'hound', derived from the German word 'hund' meaning 'dog'. Initially, it was used to describe any type of dog, but over time its meaning narrowed and is now only associated with hunting breeds such as beagles and bloodhounds.

Examples of Narrowing

To help better understand what narrowing is and how it occurs, here are a few examples:


The word 'meat' has undergone semantic narrowing over time. Originally used to refer to any type of food, its meaning has evolved and now specifically pertains to animal flesh.


The word 'deer' originated from Old English 'dēor' which meant 'beast' and was used to describe any four-legged animal. However, by the 15th century, its meaning had narrowed and now only refers to a specific type of creature.


A similar process took place with the word 'girl', which was once used in Middle English to refer to any young child. Over time, its meaning narrowed, and it is now only used to describe young and adolescent girls.

Key Takeaways

  • Semantics is the study of word meanings.
  • Semantic change refers to the evolution of a word's meaning.
  • Narrowing is a type of semantic change where a word's meaning becomes more specific.
  • This is a common process that can occur gradually over time.
  • Narrowing can be influenced by socio-cultural and psychological factors.

Narrowing - Frequently Asked Questions

What is narrowing in semantics?

Narrowing is a type of semantic change where a word's meaning becomes more specific over time.

What is an example of narrowing?

An example of narrowing is the word 'meat', which originally had a broader meaning of 'food' but now specifically refers to animal flesh.

What are the types of narrowing?

Narrowing can occur due to socio-cultural factors, such as major events, or psychological factors that influence how a word is perceived and used.

How is narrowing used in the English language?

Narrowing is commonly observed in the English language when external factors cause changes in a word's meaning.

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