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What Is Semantic Change?

By A. Gamm
Updated May 23, 2024
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Semantic change is neither an exact change in meaning, nor does it happen immediately. Instead, it involves the altering, removing and adding on of meanings behind a word by following two generalizations. The first is that meanings trend more toward negative connotations over the positive. The second is that a word may change to be more subjective and toward subjunctive mood. Although not an officially accepted generalization, words will typically take on a more informal meaning with less intense emotion.

One example of semantic change is the word “awful,” which originally meant “inspiring awe or full of awe.” Over time, the meaning altered to “bad enough to strike awe within a person;” this then shifted to a more informal use of the word, simply meaning “bad.” This change in meaning took hundreds of years to shift, and may continue to do so.

Michel Bréal, a 19th-century French scholar interested in semasiology, or the study of meaning behind words, attempted to discover the linguistic laws that dictated semantic change. This soon became the aim of linguists worldwide until the 1930s, at which point it became apparent that no laws seemed to govern the change in meaning. It was then that linguists finally agreed the change was gradual and at the discretion of the speaking public community.

Although there are no apparent laws in semantic change, many types of semantic change have been identified. The most general way to describe the change is with the term “semantic shift.” This notes just the slightest change. If the word is studied closer, even the semantic shift can be classified into a more specific form of change.

Classification is done in two parts; the first is the general range of meaning, while the other is the way in which speakers handle the words. The first category is semantic expansion and restriction, pejoration and amelioration. This also includes Phono-semantic matching, although it may also fit within the second category. The other categories are as follows: metaphorical usage, reanalysis and truncation. The former categories are accepted as the main forms of change.

Language is fluid and ever-changing; words are created and disappear from use completely. The definitions and meanings behind words have no set rules and are completely at the discretion of society. This is what makes linguistics a fascinating subject. Linguists are particularly interested in semantic change, since it is the change in meaning that a word holds over time.

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Discussion Comments
By JessicaLynn — On Nov 04, 2011

@indemnifyme - I remember noticing stuff like that in English class in high school and college. When we read books from different time periods, a lot of words had different meanings. So much so that a lot of our editions of the book included footnotes explaining what the word was supposed to mean!

I think it's interesting that semantic change only applies when the change gives the word a negative meaning. Because sometimes the meaning of a word changes over time, but not negatively. For example, ten years ago if you were talking about a "cloud," you would definitely have been talking about the fluffy white things in the sky. But, now when someone uses the word "cloud," they might be referring to a computing concept!

By indemnifyme — On Nov 03, 2011

Semantic change is really interesting. I've never thought about it before, but I can think of a few examples where the meaning of the words changed over time. For example, the word "gay" used to be happy or joyous. But now it's commonly accepted that the word means "homosexual."

I think it's really interesting how semantic changes happen because of the general population. It's not like some academic somewhere decides that the word is going to have a new meaning. Instead, the meaning changes because of the popular use of the word.

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