English Language
Semantic Change

Semantic Change

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Semantic Shift: Uncovering the Evolution of Word Meanings

Semantics is a field devoted to comprehending the essence of words. Logical and lexical are the two main branches of semantics, with logical semantics focusing on how language relates to real-world objects, and lexical semantics examining individual word meanings.

What is Semantic Change?

Semantic change is the gradual development of word meanings over time. Narrowing, broadening, amelioration, pejoration, and semantic reclamation are the five types of semantic change. This article will delve into the reasons behind semantic change, the various types, and provide examples for better understanding.

The term "semantic shift" is also used to describe the transformation of word meanings.

The Nature of Semantic Change

It's important to note that semantic change is a gradual process and not a sudden event. It can take many years for a word's meaning to shift. Additionally, societal values and beliefs play a significant role in semantic change. This means that different social or ethnic groups may experience different semantic changes for certain words.

Causes of Semantic Change

The reasons behind semantic change can be divided into two main categories: extralinguistic and linguistic. Extralinguistic causes refer to external factors such as social and historical influences, while linguistic causes occur within the language system itself.

Extralinguistic Causes

Extralinguistic causes can be further divided into three subcategories, as outlined by linguist Andreas Blank.

  • Psychological Factors: These factors influence how people perceive word meanings. If a word's original meaning is unclear, it may acquire a new meaning. Additionally, a word's meaning may become taboo or be used as a euphemism. For instance, the term "pass away" is often used to describe someone's death.
  • Socio-cultural Factors: The social, economic, or political state of a country can also contribute to semantic change. For example, significant societal changes such as the Industrial Revolution can cause the meanings of words to shift. The word "engine," for instance, originally referred to general devices used in war but now specifically describes a mechanical device.
  • Cultural Factors: Cultural changes can also lead to a change in how words are categorized or associated, resulting in semantic change. For example, "cool" was initially used in the context of jazz music, but as jazz's popularity rose, it became associated with anything trendy.

Linguistic Causes

Linguistic causes of semantic change occur within the language system and tend to take more time than extralinguistic causes. Throughout history, we have seen this gradual evolution of language, as demonstrated by the transformation of Old English into Middle English over centuries.

Some linguistic factors that contribute to semantic change include:

  • Metonymy: This occurs when an object's name is substituted for an adjective or attribute. For example, the tracks in horse racing may be referred to as "turf."
  • Metaphors: The use of metaphors may also influence word meanings, as certain words may become associated with similar concepts, expanding their meanings.
  • Semantic Extension: This occurs when two words are frequently used together in a sentence, leading to them developing the same meaning. For instance, the verb "starve" originally meant "to die," but its frequent use in sentences about hunger changed its meaning to "to die of hunger."

It's important to note that there are additional factors within these causes that can impact semantic change. The table below provides some examples of extralinguistic and linguistic causes of semantic change.

Exploring Different Types of Semantic Change

There are five major types of semantic change, each occurring due to different reasons. These types are narrowing, broadening, amelioration, pejoration, and semantic reclamation. Let's delve into the characteristics of each and provide examples.


Narrowing happens when a word's meaning becomes more specific over time.

The Dynamic Evolution of Language: Semantic Changes in English

Language is constantly evolving, and one of the ways it does so is through semantic changes. This refers to the shift in meanings of words over time, either becoming more specific or more general. One common type of semantic change is narrowing, where the meaning of a word becomes narrower in scope. For example, the term 'hound' originally encompassed all dogs, but now specifically refers to hunting breeds such as beagles and bloodhounds.

On the other hand, 'meat' is an example of a word that has undergone semantic narrowing. It used to refer to any type of food, but now specifically means animal flesh.

The Expansion of Meanings: Semantic Broadening

The opposite of narrowing is broadening, where a word's meaning becomes more general over time. This can be influenced by external factors, such as culture and technology, or internal factors, such as analogy in language. Here are some examples of broadening in the English language:

  • The word 'business' was originally used to describe being busy, but now encompasses all types of work and careers.
  • The slang term 'cool' was initially used by jazz musicians to describe a specific style of music, but has now broadened to be used in various contexts.

The Positive Progression: Semantic Amelioration

Semantic amelioration, also known as semantic elevation, refers to the process in which a word's meaning becomes more positive over time. This can occur due to societal changes or cultural shifts. For instance, in the 1300s, the word 'nice' meant foolish or silly, but by the 1800s it had acquired a kind and thoughtful connotation. Many slang terms, like 'sick' and 'wicked', have also undergone semantic amelioration and now have positive meanings.

The Negative Transformation: Pejoration

Pejoration is the opposite of amelioration, where a word that had a positive meaning now has a negative one. This can happen due to societal taboos or associations. A few examples of pejoration include the word 'silly', which used to mean happy or blessed, but now has a connotation of foolishness. Similarly, the term 'attitude' originally referred to someone's posture, but can now also have a negative connotation when describing someone's behavior.

Redefining Derogatory Terms: Semantic Reclamation

In more recent years, a process called semantic reclamation has emerged. This refers to the act of reclaiming a word that was once used to oppress a marginalized group, and giving it a positive or neutral meaning. However, it's important to note that the word may still be used in a derogatory way. An example of this is the term 'queer', which was once used to insult LGBTQ+ individuals, but has been reclaimed and embraced by the community as a positive and inclusive term.

In conclusion, the constantly evolving nature of language is evident through the various semantic changes that take place. By understanding the different types and causes of these changes, we can gain a deeper understanding of how language evolves and adapts to the world around us.

The Evolution of Language: Semantic Change

Semantic change is a common occurrence in language, where the meaning of a word shifts over time. This process can be influenced by external factors, such as social and historical changes, as well as internal factors involving language itself. Let's take a look at the four main types of semantic change and some real-life examples.

Definition and Types of Semantic Change

Semantic change refers to the evolution of a word's meaning. There are four main types of semantic change:

  • Narrowing: This occurs when a word's meaning becomes more specific over time. For example, the term 'girl' used to refer to any child, but now it exclusively pertains to female children.
  • Broadening: The opposite of narrowing, this type of change happens when a word's meaning expands to include more concepts. A notable example is the word 'playdough,' which was once a brand name but is now used to describe any similar product.
  • Amelioration: When a word's meaning changes from negative to positive, it's known as amelioration. For instance, 'fun' originally had negative connotations but now is associated with enjoyment and amusement.
  • Pejoration: This type of change is the opposite of amelioration, where a word's meaning shifts from positive to negative. A common example is the word 'stench,' which used to refer to any odor but now has negative associations with unpleasant smells.

Additional Types of Semantic Change

A lesser-known type of semantic change is semantic reclamation, where a word that was once used to belittle a particular group is reclaimed by that group and used with a positive connotation. A famous instance of this is the word 'queer,' which was once a derogatory term for the LGBTQ+ community but is now embraced and celebrated within that community.

Examples of Semantic Change

Semantic change is a natural process that can be observed in everyday language. Some common examples include:

  • The word 'hound' used to refer to any type of dog, but now mostly refers to a breed of hunting dog.
  • Originally meaning foolish, 'nice' is now associated with kindness and generosity.


In conclusion, semantic change is a crucial aspect of language evolution, influenced by different factors. By understanding the various types of semantic change, we can better comprehend the meanings and evolution of words in our daily conversations.

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