broadening (semantic generalization)

Glossary of Grammatical and Rhetorical Terms

Examples of words that have fairly recently broadened in meaning as a result of new technologies.


Broadening is a type of semantic change by which the meaning of a word becomes broader or more inclusive than its earlier meaning. Also known as semantic broadening, generalization, expansion, or extension. The opposite process is called semantic narrowing, with a word taking on a more restricted meaning than it had before.

As Victoria Fromkin points out, "When the meaning of a word becomes broader, it means everything it used to mean and more" (An Introduction to Language, 2013).

See Examples and Observations below. Also see:

Examples and Observations

  • "Broadening of meaning . . . occurs when a word with a specific or limited meaning is widened. The broadening process is technically called generalization. An example of generalization is the word business, which originally meant 'the state of being busy, careworn, or anxious,' and was broadened to encompass all kinds of work or occupations."
    (Sol Steinmetz, Semantic Antics: How and Why Words Change Meaning. Random House, 2008)

  • Cool
    "Sometimes the use of existing words can become broader. For example, the slang word cool was originally part of the professional jargon of jazz musicians and referred to a specific artistic style of jazz (a use that was itself an extension). With the passage of time, the word has come to be applied to almost anything conceivable, not just music; and it no longer refers just to a certain genre or style, but is a general term indicating approval of the thing in question."
    (Adrian Akmajian, Richard Demers, Ann Farmer, and Robert Harnish, Linguistics: An Introduction to Language and Communication. The MIT Press, 2001)

  • Dog and Bird
    "Quite a number of words have undergone semantic broadening in the history of English. The modern English word dog, for example, derives from the earlier form dogge, which was originally a particularly powerful breed of dog that originated in England. The word bird derives from the earlier word bridde, which originally referred only to young birds while still in the nest, but it has now been semantically broadened to refer to any birds at all."
    (Terry Crowley and Claire Bowern, An Introduction to Historical Linguistics, 4th ed. Oxford University Press, 2010)

  • Thing, Companion, Broadcast, and Pudding
    "The word thing is a classic example of such broadening. In Old English and Old Norse, this word meant 'a public assembly.' In present-day Icelandic, a language with similar Germanic roots to English, it still does. In Modern English, however, it has now been extended so much that it simply means 'an entity of any kind.' The word companion provides another example. It used to mean 'someone who eats bread with you' (see Italian con 'with' plus pain 'bread'); now it means 'someone who is with you.' The word broadcast, which only a couple of centuries ago meant 'to sow seeds,' has now, in this technological age, been extended to include the spreading of information on television and radio. Pudding, which today is usually sweet and eaten for dessert, comes from the French word boudin, meaning a sausage made with animal intestines, a meaning retained in English black pudding."
    (Andrew Radford, et al., Linguistics: An Introduction, 2nd ed. Cambridge University Press, 2009)

  • You Guys and Sell-by Date
    "A recent generalization or semantic broadening has taken place in the phrase you guys in AmE, which is no longer restricted to men and can refer to mixed company, or even women only. Sell-by date also shows an extended meaning (metaphor) in Kennedy kept Hoover on past his sell-by date."
    (Stephan Gramley and Kurt-Michael Pätzold, A Survey of Modern English, 2nd ed. Routledge, 2004) 

  • Religious Terms
    - "Extension or Generalization. A lexeme widens its meaning. Numerous examples of this process have occurred in the religious field, where office, doctrine, novice, and many other terms have taken on a more general, secular meaning."
    (David Crystal, The Cambridge Encyclopedia of the English Language. Cambridge University Press, 2003)

    - "An example of broadening of meaning is the change from holy day as a religious feast to the very general break from work called a holiday."
    (George Yule, The Study of Language, 3rd ed. Cambridge University Press, 2006)

  • Semantic Shift and Semantic Broadening
    "Semantic shift represents an extension of a word's meaning with the loss of its earlier meaning (e.g. pineapple no longer means 'fir cone' in standard English). Semantic broadening is such extension without the loss of the original meaning. For example, tea in most English Creoles refers not only to the infusion made from various leaves, but also to any hot drink."
    (John Holm, An Introduction to Pidgins and Creoles. Cambridge University Press, 2000)

  • Bleaching and Grammaticalization
    "Thing used to refer to an assembly or council, but in time came to refer to anything. In modern English slang, the same development has been affecting the word shit, whose basic meaning 'feces' has broadened to become synonymous with 'thing' or 'stuff' in some contexts (Don't touch my shit; I've got a lot of shit to take care of this weekend). If a word's meaning becomes so vague that one is hard-pressed to ascribe any specific meaning to it anymore, it is said to have undergone bleaching. Thing and shit above are both good examples. When a word's meaning is broadened so that it loses its status as a full-content lexeme and becomes either a function word or an affix, it is said to undergo grammaticalization."
    (Benjamin W. Forston IV, "An Approach to Semantic Change." The Handbook of Historical Linguistics, ed. by Brian D. Joseph and Richard D. Janda. Wiley-Blackwell, 2003)