Semantic Narrowing (Specialization)

Glossary of Grammatical and Rhetorical Terms - Definition and Examples



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Semantic narrowing is a type of semantic change by which the meaning of a word becomes less general or inclusive than its earlier meaning. Also known as specialization or restriction. The opposite process is called broadening or semantic generalization.

"Such specialization is slow and need not be complete," notes linguist Tom McArthur. For example, the word "fowl is now usually restricted to the farmyard hen, but it retains its old meaning of 'bird' in expressions like the fowls of the air and wild fowl" (Oxford Companion to the English Language, 1992).

Examples and Observations

  • "Narrowing of meaning . . . happens when a word with a general meaning is by degrees applied to something much more specific. The word litter, for example, meant originally (before 1300) 'a bed,' then gradually narrowed down to 'bedding,' then to 'animals on a bedding of straw,' and finally to things scattered about, odds and ends. . . . Other examples of specialization are deer, which originally had the general meaning 'animal,' girl, which meant originally 'a young person,' and meat, whose original meaning was 'food.'"
    (Sol Steinmetz, Semantic Antics: How and Why Words Change Meanings. Random House, 2008)
  • Hound and Indigenous
    "We say that narrowing takes place when a word comes to refer to only part of the original meaning. The history of the word hound in English neatly illustrates this process. The word was originally pronounced hund in English, and it was the generic word for any kind of dog at all. This original meaning is retained, for example, in German, where the word Hund simply means 'dog.' Over the centuries, however, the meaning of hund in English has become restricted to just those dogs used to chase game in the hunt, such as beagles. . . .
    "Words may come to be associated with particular contexts, which is another type of narrowing. One example of this is the word indigenous, which when applied to people means especially the inhabitants of a country which has been colonized, not 'original inhabitants' more generally."
    (Terry Crowley and Claire Bowern, An Introduction to Historical Linguistics, 4th ed. Oxford University Press, 2010)
  • Meat and Art
    "In Old English, mete referred to food in general (a sense which is retained in sweetmeat); today, it refers to only one kind of food (meat). Art originally had some very general meanings, mostly connected to 'skill'; today, it refers just to certain kinds of skill, chiefly in relation to aesthetic skill - 'the arts.'"
    (David Crystal, How Language Works. Overlook, 2006)
  • Starve
    "Modern English starve means 'to die of hunger' (or often 'to be extremely hungry'; and dialectally, 'to be very cold'), while its Old English ancestor steorfan meant more generally 'to die.'"​
    (April M. S. McMahon, Understanding Language Change. Cambridge University Press, 1994)
  • Sand
    "[M]any Old English words acquired narrower, more specific meanings in ME as a direct result of loans from other languages. . . . OE sand had meant either 'sand' or 'shore.' When Low German shore was borrowed to refer to the land itself along a body of water, sand narrowed to mean only the granular particles of disintegrated rock that covered this land."
    (C.M. Millward and Mary Hayes, A Biography of the English Language, 3rd ed. Wadsworth, 2012)
  • Wife, Vulgar, and Naughty
    "The Old English version of the word wife could be used to refer to any woman but has narrowed in its application nowadays to only married women. A different kind of narrowing can lead to a negative meaning [pejoration] for some words, such as vulgar (which used to mean simply 'ordinary') and naughty (which used to mean 'having nothing').
    "None of these changes happened overnight. They were gradual and probably difficult to discern while they were in progress."
    (George Yule, The Study of Language, 4th ed. Cambridge University Press, 2010)
  • Accident and Fowl
    "Accident means an unintended injurious or disastrous event. Its original meaning was just any event, especially one that was unforeseen. . . . Fowl in Old English referred to any bird. Subsequently, the meaning of this word was narrowed to a bird raised for food, or a wild bird hunted for 'sport.'"​
    (Francis Katamba, English Words: Structure, History, Usage. Routledge, 2004)
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Your Citation
Nordquist, Richard. "Semantic Narrowing (Specialization)." ThoughtCo, Aug. 27, 2020, Nordquist, Richard. (2020, August 27). Semantic Narrowing (Specialization). Retrieved from Nordquist, Richard. "Semantic Narrowing (Specialization)." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 1, 2023).