English Department (Linguistics)
Cal Poly State University San Luis Obispo
Last updated 2/24/00
Semantic Change: Some examples
Source: Millward, Catherine A., "A Biography of the English Language", Harcourt Brace College Publishers, 1996.
The meaning of a word broadens to include more objects/ideas referred to.
Some more-detailed histories:
The word 'fair' has extended its meaning, keeping most of its former senses:
'fair': (1) OE fæger
'beautiful, attractive' > (2) by 1300: add 'free of fraud or injustice'
>(3) 1400 add 'unblemished' > (4) 1500s add 'blond' > (5) 1700s: add 'moderate'.
The word 'nice', on the other hand, has lost most of its former meanings on its way to today's general meaning:
'nice': (borrowed from French) (1) 1200s 'foolish, stupid' > (2) 1300s 'wanton'[so, do you still want to marry a nice guy or girl?] (3) 1400s: 'flamboyant, elegant, rare, modest, shy, coy' and 'lazy, unmanly' > (4) 1500s 'fastidious, dainty, difficult to decide; minute, subtle; precise, critical, picayuney'> (5) 1700s 'dainty, appetizing, agreeable, delightful' > (6) contemporary 'agreeable, pleasant, kind'.
Some meanderings through different Indo-European languages:
(1) '*teu-' a reconstructed IE root meaning 'swell' has given us Latin 'tumor' but English 'thumb' and 'thigh'.
(2) '*poid, pid, poi-, pi-' reconstructed IE words/roots for 'gush forth, swell' has led to various cognates whose meanings are now often not closely related:
Germanic '*faityan' 'to fatten'; whence English 'fat'; Dutch 'vet'; German 'fett' (which also means 'grease, cooking fat' 'fett' applied to people or animals means 'obese' and the word 'dick' (English 'thick') is used as is 'fat' in English); Greek'piduein' 'gush', 'pidax' 'spring'; Old Irish 'esc' (from Proto-Gaelic *'pidska') 'water', Gaelic 'uisg' 'water' hence English 'whisky'. So 'fat' and 'whisky' come from the same IE source word! (Source of this example: C. T. Onions, ed., "The Oxford Dictionary of Etymology", Oxford U. Press, 1966.)