Semantic Change

Glossary of Grammatical and Rhetorical Terms - Definition and Examples

abacus and computer
According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the original meaning of the word computer (going back to 1646) is "One who computes; a calculator, reckoner; spec. a person employed to make calculations in an observatory, in surveying." Over the past century, the noun computer has undergone semantic change. (Matthias Tunger/Getty Images)


In semantics and historical linguistics, semantic change refers to any change in the meaning(s) of a word over the course of time. Also called semantic shift, lexical change, and semantic progression.

Common types of semantic change include amelioration, pejoration, broadening, semantic narrowing, bleaching, metaphor, and metonymy.

Semantic change may also occur when native speakers of another language adopt English expressions and apply them to activities or conditions in their own social and cultural environment.

See Examples and Observations below. Also, see:

Examples and Observations

  • "Two well-known examples of semantic shift have remained popular since the Vietnam War, when hawk came to be used frequently for supporters of the war and dove for its opponents, extending the meaning of these words from the combative nature of hawks and the symbolically peaceful role of doves. Today, computers users utilize a mouse and bookmark Internet addresses. These new meanings did not replace earlier ones but extended the range of application for the words mouse and bookmark."
    (Edward Finegan, Language: Its Structure and Use, 6th ed. Wadsworth, 2012)
  • "Like any linguistic change, a semantic change is not acquired simultaneously by all members of a speech community. An innovation enters into a language and spreads through the speech community along socially determined lines. The original meaning of a form is not immediately displaced by the innovated meaning, but the two coexist for some time. . . .

    "Semantic change is not a change in meaning per se, but the addition of a meaning to the semantic system or the loss of a meaning from the semantic system while the form remains constant."
    (David P. Wilkins, "Natural Tendencies of Semantic Change and the Search for Cognates" in The Comparative Method Reviewed, ed. by M. Durie and M. Ross. Oxford University Press, 1996)

    The Role of Metaphor in Semantic Change

    • "Metaphor in semantic change involves extensions in the meaning of a word that suggest a semantic similarity or connection between the new sense and the original one. Metaphor is considered a major factor in semantic change. . . . The semantic change of grasp 'seize" to 'understand,' thus can be seen as such a leap across semantic domains, from the physical domain ('seizing') to the mental domain ('comprehension') . . .. Frequently mentioned examples of metaphoric extensions involve expressions for 'to kill': dispose of, do someone in, liquidate, terminate, take care of, eliminate and others."
      (Lyle Campbell, Historical Linguistics: An Introduction. MIT Press, 2004)

    Semantic Change in Singapore English

    • "Semantic shift also occurs in certain ordinate and superordinate nouns. For example, 'Christian' is a superordinate term in British English and refers to all followers of the Christian religion, no matter to which branch or sect of it they belong. In Singaporean English, 'Christian' specifically refers to Protestant (Deterding, 2000). Similarly, 'alphabet' in English refers to the whole system of letters while in Singaporean English it refers to any one of them. This, in Singaporean English, the word 'alphabet' is made up of 8 alphabets."
      (Andy Kirkpatrick, World English. Cambridge University Press, 2007)

      The Unpredictability of Semantic Change

      • "[I]n the majority of cases semantic change is as fuzzy, self-contradictory, and difficult to predict as lexical semantics itself. This is the reason that after initial claims that they will at long last successfully deal with semantics, just about all linguistic theories quickly return to business as usual and concentrate on the structural aspects of language, which are more systematic and therefore easier to deal with."
        (Hans Henrich Hock and Brian D. Joseph, Language History, Language Change, and Language Relationship. Walter de Gruyter, 1996)

      Also Known As: semantic shift, lexical change, semantic progression

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      Your Citation
      Nordquist, Richard. "Semantic Change." ThoughtCo, Apr. 3, 2017, Nordquist, Richard. (2017, April 3). Semantic Change. Retrieved from Nordquist, Richard. "Semantic Change." ThoughtCo. (accessed September 23, 2017).