How the Meanings of Words Change

Generalization, Specialization, Amelioration, and Pejoration

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Stick around long enough and you'll notice that language changes—whether you like it or not. Consider this recent report from columnist Martha Gill on the redefinition of the word literally:

It's happened. Literally the most misused word in the language has officially changed definition. Now as well as meaning "in a literal manner or sense; exactly: 'the driver took it literally when asked to go straight over the traffic circle,'" various dictionaries have added its other more recent usage. As Google puts it, "literally" can be used "to acknowledge that something is not literally true but is used for emphasis or to express strong feeling." . . .

"Literally," you see, in its development from knock-kneed, single-purpose utterance, to swan-like dual-purpose term, has reached that awkward stage. It is neither one nor the other, and it can't do anything right."
(Martha Gill, "Have We Literally Broken the English Language?" The Guardian [UK], August 13, 2013)

Changes in word meanings (a process called semantic shift) happen for various reasons and in various ways. Four common types of change are broadening, narrowing, amelioration, and pejoration. (For more detailed discussions of these processes, click on the highlighted terms.)

  • Broadening
    Also known as generalization or extension, broadening is the process by which a word's meaning becomes more inclusive than an earlier meaning. In Old English, for instance, the word dog referred to just one particular breed, and thing meant a public assembly. In contemporary English, of course, dog can refer to any hairy, barking, four-legged creature, and thing can refer to, well, anything.
  • Narrowing
    The opposite of broadening is narrowing (also called specialization or restriction), a type of semantic change in which a word's meaning becomes less inclusive. For example, in Middle English, deer could refer to any animal, and girl could mean a young person of either sex.
  • Amelioration
    Amelioration refers to the upgrading or rise in status of a word's meaning. For example, meticulous once meant "fearful or timid," and sensitive meant simply "capable of using one's senses."
  • Pejoration
    More common than amelioration is the downgrading or depreciation of a word's meaning, a process called pejoration. The adjective silly, for instance, once meant "blessed" or "innocent," officious meant "hard working," and aggravate meant to "increase the weight" of something.

    Over the course of time, words "slip-slide in all directions," says linguist Jean Aitchison, and for that reason "traditional lists of causes" (such as the list above) can "reduce semantic change to the level of stamp collecting, an assembly of colourful bits and pieces" (Language Change: Progress Or Decay? 2013).

    What's worth keeping in mind is that meanings don't change over night. Different senses of the same word often overlap, and new meanings can co-exist with older meanings for centuries. In linguistic terms, polysemy is the rule, not the exception.

    "Words are by nature incurably fuzzy," says Aitchison. And in recent years the adverb literally has become exceptionally fuzzy. In fact, it has slipped into the rare category of Janus words, joining terms like sanction, bolt, and fix that contain opposite or contradictory meanings.

    Martha Gill concludes that there's not much we can do about literally, "other than avoid it completely." The awkward stage that it's going through may last for quite some time. "It is a moot word," she says. "We just have to leave it up in its bedroom for a while until it grows up a bit."

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