Semantic Bleaching of Word Meanings

Glossary of Grammatical and Rhetorical Terms

Examples of bleached words in English. ThoughtCo

In semantics and historical linguistics, semantic bleaching is the loss or reduction of meaning in a word as a result of semantic change. Also known as semantic loss, semantic reduction, desemanticisation, and weakening.

Linguist Dan Jurafsky notes that semantic bleaching is "pervasive with . . . emotional or affective words, even applying to verbs like 'love'" ( The Language of Food, 2015).

Examples and Observations

  • "Related to broadening is bleaching, where the semantic content of a word becomes reduced as the grammatical content increases, for instance in the development of intensifiers such as awfully, terribly, horribly (e.g. awfully late, awfully big, awfully small) or pretty (pretty good, pretty bad . . .)." (Philip Durkin, The Oxford Guide to Etymology. Oxford University Press, 2009)

The Semantic Bleaching of Emotional Words

  • "Words like horrible or terrible used to mean 'inducing awe' or 'full of wonder.' But humans naturally exaggerate, and so over time, people used these words in cases where there wasn't actually terror or true wonder. "The result is what we call semantic bleaching: the 'awe' has been bleached out of the meaning of awesome. Semantic bleaching is pervasive with these emotional or affective words, even applying to verbs like ' love.' Linguist and lexicographer Erin McKean notes that it was only recently, in the late 1800s, that young women began to generalize the word love to talk about their relationship to inanimate objects like food." (Dan Jurafsky, The Language of Food: A Linguist Reads the Menu. W.W. Norton, 2015)

Origin of the Concept of Semantic Bleaching

  • "The process by which the literal meaning of a word or phrase evanesces is called semantic bleaching and was first elucidated in an influential book by the German linguist Georg von der Gabelentz in 1891. Invoking the metaphor of 'the civil servant [who] is hired, promoted, has his hours cut back, and finally gets pensioned off completely,' Gabelentz says that when new words get created from old, 'fresher new colors cover the bleached old ones. . . . In all of this, there are two possibilities: either the old word is made to vanish without a trace by the new, or it carries on but in a more or less vestigial existence--retires from public life.'" (Alexander Humez, Nicholas Humez, and Rob Flynn, Short Cuts: A Guide to Oaths, Ring Tones, Ransom Notes, Famous Last Words, & Other Forms of Minimalist Communication. Oxford University Press, 2010)

Bleached Got

  • "We regard have got [to] as idiomatic, because the element got is fixed, and because it derives its meaning from the combination as a whole (often shortened as gotta). In this connection note that the meaning of got is 'bleached' (i.e. has lost its original meaning), and does not carry the meaning 'possess.'" (Bas Aarts, Oxford Modern English Grammar. Oxford University Press, 2011)

Examples of Semantic Bleaching: Thing and Shit

  • "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)

Semantic Change, Not Semantic Loss

  • "A common concept in grammaticalization theory is described by a number of terms including 'bleaching,' 'desemanticisation,' 'semantic loss,' and 'weakening' . . .. The general claim behind such terms is that in certain semantic changes something is 'lost.' However, in typical cases of grammaticalization, there is often 'a redistribution or shift, not a loss, of meaning' (Hopper and Traugott, 1993:84; emphasis added . . .). To determine whether a semantic change has involved 'loss,' one must measure the differences between positive specifications of the putative 'before' and 'after' meanings, thus making the claim of 'semantic loss' a falsifiable one. The necessary explicit formulations of meanings involved are seldom forthcoming in existing literature." (N. J. Enfield, Linguistics Epidemiology: Semantics and Grammar of Language Contact in Mainland Southeast Asia. RoutledgeCurzon, 2003)