How Word Meanings Change: 'He Was a Happy and Sad Girl'

Examples of Semantic Change

"He fed nuts to the deer that lived in the branches of an apple tree which bore pears.". (Alexey Bubryak/Getty Images)
It is a great pity that language cannot be the exact, finely tuned instrument that deep thinkers wish it to be. But the fact is . . . that the meaning of every word is susceptible to change, and some words have changed meaning radically in the course of their history.
(John Algeo and Carmen Acevedo Butcher, Origins and Development of the English Language, 7th ed. Wadsworth, Cengage, 2014)

If you want proof that the meanings of even the simplest words can change over time, try deciphering this passage composed by linguistics professor John Algeo:

He was a happy and sad girl who lived in a town forty miles from the closest neighbor. His unmarried sister, a wife who was a vegetarian member of the WCTU, ate meat and drank liquor three times a day. She was so fond of oatmeal bread made from the corn her brother grew that she starved from overeating. He fed nuts to the deer that lived in the branches of an apple tree which bore pears. A silly and wise boor everyone liked, he was a lewd man whom the general censure held to be a model of chastity.
(John Algeo and Carmen Acevedo Butcher, Workbook:  Problems for Algeo/Butcher's The  Origins and Development of the English Language, 7th ed. Cengage, 2013)

Pure nonsense? Sure--if you insist on attaching contemporary definitions to every word in the passage. But if you assign an older meaning to each word in bold, you can easily clear up the confusion.

That's not to say that this paragraph would have been logically coherent during any single period in the history of the English language.

The now obsolete meanings of some of the words date back to Old English (OE), the others to Middle English (ME).

To save you a trip to the Oxford English Dictionary, here's the key to deciphering the passage. 

  • sad: steadfast, mature, trustworthy (ME)
  • girl: a young person of either sex (ME)
  • town: a farmstead, a homestead, a house on an area of enclosed land (OE)
  • wife: a woman (OE)
  • meat: a meal (ME)
  • liquor: beverage, drink (ME)
  • corn: cereal plant, grain (OE)
  • starve: die (OE)
  • deer: any animal (OE)
  • apple: any fruit (OE)
  • silly: deserving of pity, compassion, or sympathy (ME)
  • boor: peasant (ME)
  • lewd: a layperson, not in holy orders (OE)
  • censure: opinion (ME)

To learn more about semantic change, visit these pages: