Amelioration (word meanings)

Glossary of Grammatical and Rhetorical Terms

amelioration in language
Examples of words that have undergone amelioration since their first appearance in Old English (OE) and Middle English (ME).


In linguistics, amelioration is the upgrading or elevation of a word's meaning, as when a word with a negative sense develops a positive one. Also called melioration or elevation.

Amelioration is less common than the opposite historical process, called pejoration.

See Examples and Observations below. See also:

From the Latin, "better".

Examples and Observations

  • Nice
    "The word nice is a classic example of amelioration . . .. This is a rare occurrence, compared with the opposite process of pejoration, or downgrading.

    "The meaning of nice when it first appeared in Middle English (about 1300) was '(of persons or their actions) foolish, silly, simple; ignorant, senseless, absurd.'

    " . . . A shift away from disparagement began in the 1500s, with such meanings as 'requiring or involving great precision or accuracy.' . . .

    "The movement toward amelioration reached its apex in the 1800s with such meanings as 'kind and considerate, friendly.'"
    (Sol Steinmetz, Semantic Antics: How and Why Words Change Meanings. Random House, 2008)
  • Dizzy
    "A possible example of amelioration during ME [Middle English] might be, depending on one's viewpoint, the word dizzy. In OE [Old English] it meant 'foolish,' a meaning that survives marginally in such expressions as a dizzy blonde; but by ME its primary meaning was 'suffering from vertigo.'"
    (C. M. Millward and Mary Hayes, A Biography of the English Language, 3rd ed. Wadsworth, 2011)
  • Amelioration and Deterioration
    "Amelioration, whereby a word takes on favorable connotations and deterioration whereby it takes on pejorative associations, are often telling indications of social change. There is a particularly pregnant category ably defined by C.S. Lewis as 'the moralization of status words' (1960) . . .. By this process terms originally denoting status and class slowly acquired moral connotations, favorable and otherwise, evaluative of the moral conduct commonly attributed to that class. Hence, villein, a medieval serf, and Anglo-Saxon ceorl, still lower in the hierarchy, deteriorated to villain and churlish, while noble and gentle, predictably, rose in moral connotations. In more recent times, the steady amelioration of ambitious and aggressive reveals a change in attitude towards those who seek advancement or 'success' in a highly competitive fashion."
    (Geoffrey Hughes, Words in Time: A Social History of the English Vocabulary. Basil Blackwell, 1988)
  • Amelioration and Verbicide
    "Sometimes amelioration involves weakening of an originally strongly negative meaning: so, annoy is from Late Latin inodiare ' to make loathsome,' in turn from the Latin phrase mihi in odio est 'it is hateful to me' . . .. Likewise, terribly and awfully have weakened to become alternatives for very. [Geoffrey] Hughes (1988) associates this type of amelioration with the popular press, and labels it 'verbicide,' citing tragedy which can now, in journalistic usage, be applied to an earthquake killing thousands or to a missed goal in football."
    (April M. S. McMahon, Understanding Language Change. Cambridge University Press, 1999)

Pronunciation: a-MEEL-ya-RAY-shun