Pejoration in Language

Glossary of Grammatical and Rhetorical Terms

Pejoration
In recent years, as Kate Burridge points out, the word attitude (as in "He's got an attitude") has undergone pejoration. The "negative sense," she says, "has now become overwhelming" (Gift of the Gob, 2011). Paul Bradbury/Getty Images

In linguistics, pejoration is the downgrading or depreciation of a word's meaning, as when a word with a positive sense develops a negative one.

Pejoration is much more common that the opposite process, called amelioration. Here are some examples and observations from other writers:

Silly

"The word silly is a classic example of pejoration, or gradual worsening of meaning. In early Middle English (around 1200), sely (as the word was then spelled) meant 'happy, blissful, blessed, fortunate,' as it did in Old English.

. . .

"The original meaning was followed by a succession of narrower ones, including 'spiritually blessed, pious, holy, good, innocent, harmless.' . . .

"As the form (and pronunciation) sely changed to silly in the 1500s, the earlier meanings passed into increasingly less favorable senses such as 'weak, feeble, insignificant.' . . . By the late 1500s, the word's use declined to its present-day meaning of 'lacking good sense, empty-headed, senseless, foolish,' as in 'This is the silliest stuff that ever I heard' (1595, Shakespeare, A Midsummer Night's Dream)."

(Sol Steinmetz, Semantic Antics: How and Why Words Change Meanings. Random House, 2008)

Hierarchy

"Hierarchy shows a similar, though more pronounced, deterioration. Originally applied to an order or a host of angels from the fourteenth century, it has steadily moved down the scale of being, referring to 'a collective body of ecclesiastical rulers' from c.

1619, from whence the similar secular sense develops c.1643 (in Milton's tract on divorce). . . . Today one frequently hears of 'the party hierarchy,' 'business hierarchies,' and the like, denoting only the top of the hierarchy, not the whole order, and conveying the same nuances of hostility and envy implied in elite."
(Geoffrey Hughes, Words in Time: A Social History of the English Vocabulary.

Basil Blackwell, 1988)

Discreet

"[U]sing language to 'spin' may worsen the meaning of the substituted language, a process linguists call 'pejoration.' That has happened to the previously innocuous adjective discreet, when used in 'personal' columns as a euphemism for illicit sexual meetings. A recent Wall Street Journal article quoted the customer service manager of an online dating service as saying he banned the use of discreet from his service because 'it's often code for "married and looking to fool around."' The site is for singles only."
(Gertrude Block, Legal Writing Advice: Questions and Answers. William S. Hein, 2004)

Attitude

"Let me give one final example of this kind of semantic corrosion--the word attitude. . . . Originally, attitude was a technical term, meaning 'position, pose.' It shifted to mean 'mental state, mode of thinking' (presumably whatever was implied by someone's posture). In colloquial usage, it has since deteriorated. He's got an attitude means 'he's got a confronting manner (probably uncooperative, antagonistic)'; something to be corrected by parents or teachers. Whereas once this would have been rendered He's got a bad attitude or an attitude problem, the negative sense has now become overwhelming."
(Kate Burridge, Gift of the Gob: Morsels of English Language History.

HarperCollins Australia, 2011)​

Pejoration and Euphemism

"One specific source of pejoration is euphemism . . .: in avoiding some taboo word, speakers may use an alternative which in time acquires the meaning of the original and itself falls out of use. Thus, in English, disinformation has replaced lying in some political contexts, where it has recently been joined by being economical with the truth."
(April M. S. McMahon, Understanding Language Change. Cambridge University Press, 1999)

Generalizations About Pejoration

"Some few generalizations are possible:

"Words meaning 'inexpensive' have an inherent likelihood to become negative in connotation, often highly negative. Lat. [Latin] vilis 'at a good price' (i.e. inevitably, 'low price') > 'commonplace' > 'trashy, contemptible, low' (the current meaning of It.

[Italian], Fr. [French], NE. [Modern English] vile).

"Words for 'clever, intelligent, capable' commonly develop connotations (and eventually denotations of sharp practice, dishonesty, and so on:

" . . . NE crafty 'dishonestly clever' is from OE craeftig 'strong(ly)l skillful(ly)' (NHG [New High German] kräftig 'strong'; the ancient sense 'strong, strength' of this family of words fades very early in the history of English, where the usual senses pertain to skill).

"NE cunning has very negative connotations in present-day English, but in Middle English it meant 'learned, skillful, expert' . . .."
(Andrew L. Sihler, Language History: An Introduction. John Benjamins, 2000)

Pronunciation: PEDGE-e-RAY-shun

Also Known As: deterioration, degeneration

Etymology
From the Latin, "worse"