Dr. Johanna Rubba
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.


Generalization: The meaning of a word broadens to include more objects/ideas referred to.
Narrowing: The opposite of generalization: The meaning of a word narrows, so that it refers to fewer objects/ideas.
Amelioration: The meaning of a word loses negative connotations (or neutral ones) and acquires positive connotations.
Pejoration: The opposite of amelioration: The meaning of a word gains negative connotations which it didn't use to have.
Other shifts: There is a shift in what the word refers to that is not easily classified as any of the above.

Generalization Narrowing Amelioration Pejoration Other shifts
word old mng. word old mng. word old mng. word old mng. word old mng.
bird chick weed any plant steed any horse silly happy, fortunate cloud hill
rough of cloth or hairy surfaces sweat exude any body fluid pretty tricky, sly, wily crafty skilled worm dragon, monster
twist twig, tendril swelter die dreary gory, bloody lewd layperson stuff supply, provision
crop young shoot of plant narrow oppress, restrict fond idiotic, crazy churl peasant, layman awe terror, dread
plant shrub, sapling free noble, free dizzy foolish boor farmer know-ledge acknow-ledge
trend revolve, roll beam tree bower bedroom, living space lust pleasure, delight tide time
heap crowd of people tree chopped wood knight boy carp talk, speech warp throw
acorn any fruit boy rascal knave boy wan dark, dusky
fowl any bird await lie in wait for hussy housewife grin grimace
deer any animal bare useless, worthless wench girl quell kill
girl youth M/F jolly arrogant, wanton villain farmer fret devour
harlot rascal, thief M/F luxury lust, licentious-ness spill destroy

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'.
Examples: (1) 'a fair maiden'; (2) 'fair play', 'unfair'; (3) 'fair weather'; (4) 'fair-haired'; (5) 'fairly interesting'. Note that the expression 'a fair amount' is moving from meaning 'a moderate amount' to 'a somewhat large amount'.

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.)