The Change in Meaning

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This is the ninth part of Guruji’s summary of F.T. Wood’s book on the English Language.

  1. The Nature and Origin of Language
  2. The Indo-European Family
  3. The Germanic Sub-group
  4. Grimm’s Law
  5. Verner’s Law
  6. The Great Vowel Shift
  7. A Survey of Developments during the Middle English Period
  8. The Evolution of Standard English
  9. Change in Meaning
  10. Growth of Vocabulary

The Change in Meaning

Countless words in the English language have changed/modified their meaning.  Actually, of course, words have no independent and intrinsic meaning apart from that given them by the human mind and by their context; for they are essentially vehicles for the expression of thoughts and ideas.  The methods by which words have changed their meanings and the reasons behind them are manifold, but the following appear to be the chief:

  1. Generalization:  A word which at one time had a specialized and restricted meaning comes in course of time to have a wider application.  The process by which such a change occurs is called generalization.

Example: ‘Box’ – Originally it was the name of a tree and the wood from it being rare and expensive, box wood was used almost exclusively for making small caskets for the reception of jewelry which became known, in turn, as a box.

Journey and Journal (from French ‘jour’ = day).

Companion and Comrade – Literally the word ‘companion’ means ‘ one who eats bread with another person’  (com = with, panis = bread) and ‘comrade  (Italian ‘camera’ = a room) means ‘one who shares a room’, but since those with whom we eat bread and share a room are likely to be our close friends, the inevitable shifting of emphasis took place and the modern signification of these words was evolved.

  1. Specialization: In the Middle English period, the absorption of a considerable Norman-French elements and later, at the time of Renaissance, the introduction of words of Latin origin, gave rise to a large number of synonyms.  The natural and almost inevitable course was for these synonyms to become differentiated one from the others, thus many words, which today have a specialized application, at one time bore a much wider and more general significance.

Examples: The word  ‘fowl’ comes directly from the Anglo-Saxon ‘fugol’ and is cognate with the modern German ‘vogel’.  But the word ‘bird’ also existed in Middle English, and the result was that, for a while, the two terms were used indiscriminately as alternatives; but, gradually ‘bird’ came to be the more general term, while ‘fowl’ took on a specialized meaning.  And similarly with ‘deer’; originally, it meant ‘a wild animal’ (cf. German ‘tier’); now it refers to one particular species of animal.  Other examples: ‘weeds’ (clothes), shroud, doom, etc.

  1. Extension or Transference followed by Differentiation of Meaning:  Some words undergo a change of meaning by a process which upto a point is a combination of the two mentioned before, viz., ‘generalization’ and ‘specialization’, but differs from them both.  This process may be called ‘differentiation’.  Our mind differentiates between the original meaning and the newly acquired one, so that although it is still only ne word, it has two or possibly more specialized meanings..

Examples: ‘Fret’ – The basis of this word is the Anglo-Saxon ‘fretan’ which meant ‘to eat’.  Today it is used as a synonym for ‘worry’, though it appears with a rather different connotation with a ‘fretwork’.  The latter may possibly be a fusion during the Middle English period with the old French verb ‘freer (= to adorn) since the fretted work in architectural design was at once an adornment and had the appearance of having been ‘eaten away’.  The more common modern usage of the term signifies ‘ to adorn or eat away with worry or anxiety’.

‘Brand’ is etymologically connected with the verb ‘to burn’.  In the earliest stages of its history, it meant a burning piece of wood taken out from the fire, and later by analogy or association, a piece of metal made red hot in the fire.  Such iron was commonly used for marking or branding.

Other examples – ‘Anthology’, nearly always used nowadays to designate a collection of poems, is literally the Greek term for a bunch of flowers.  The word ‘posy’ (a bunch of flowers) is actually the same word as ‘poesy’ (poetry).  The connecting link lies in the fact that flowers are closely associated with poetry.

  1. Polarisation or colouring: It sometimes happens that in the course of time a word acquires a definite ‘colouring’ or emotional significance for which, etymologically, there is  no justification.  In some cases, this colouring persists for a limited period only; in others, it persists so that a definite modification in meaning occurs.

Example:  The adjective ‘victorian’ at one time quite colourless, now implies some degree of condemnation, though not quite so much as it did some thirty five years ago.  ‘Gothic’ was once (at the end of the 18t century) used in a derogatory sense, synonymous with ‘uncouth’, ‘barbarous’ or ‘wanting in taste’;  but since then it has resumed its pristine (original) and more obvious signification, implying neither praise nor condemnation.

Other examples: ‘bolshevik’ (member of the Russian Majority or Extreme Socialist Party)

As opposed to Mensheik (a violent revolutionary Maxist Movement)

‘anarchist’, ‘propaganda’, ‘amateur’, etc.

  1. Loss of Distinctive Colouring: This happens most easily in the case of words in the English Language which have a religious or political significance, especially those which in the beginning were applied to minorities or to unpopular views.  As controversy dies down, as suspicions and odium (offensiveness, hatred) were allayed their distinctive colouring is lost.

Example:  The word ‘Christian’ was originally a term of derision (scorn, ridicule).  Their appellation ‘quaker’, now virtually accepted by the society of friends themselves as an alternative name, was bestowed upon the sect in mockery by Judge Bennet of Derby because George Fox bade him and all those present in the court “quake at the name of the Lord”.

Similarly de-polarized the trio – policy, politics, politician – all terms suggestive of dishonesty and trickery in Shakespeare and his generation – and indeed to a much later age – now have become respectable.  Other examples are ‘methodists’, ‘Mohammedanism’, ‘brave’, ‘gaudy’, etc.

  1. Association of ideas:  Through this process, there is a gradual shifting of emphasis from the original fundamental meaning to some incidental or associated characteristic of the person so designated.

Example: An excellent example is provided by the word ’villain’.  Originally, it signified a labourer on the manorial estate.  But to the feudal nobility the ‘villains’ were coarse and uncouth, and so the word came to mean a person of coarse behavior or speech or one who lacked refinement.  Later, a further stage in the degradation of the word was reached when it came to acquire its modern signification.  The term ‘villain’ and ‘villainy’ are amongst the most condemnatory that we can apply to a person.

Other examples: ‘Crescent’ (originally growing – now it is an arc or a ‘circle taken from a ‘growing moon’).  ‘Reek’ today is associated with a pungent or rather offensive smell.  Originally, it meant ‘smoke’.  ‘yard’, ‘drive’, ‘prophet’, ‘sabotage’ etc., are some other examples.

  1. Metaphorical Application: words that change their meaning through this process fall into two categories, viz., (a) those in the case of which the literal use is still preserved so that the metaphorical application constitutes what is virtually a new meaning or a new word;  (b) those where the metaphorical sense has gained precedence over, or usurped altogether the place of the literal one.

Into the former category fall words like ‘keen’, ‘dull’, ‘sharp, ‘bright’, ‘volatile’ – often describing feelings or certain qualities of character and intellect.

‘sad’ and ‘silly’ belong to the second category.  The original meaning of ‘sad’ was ‘full’.  By Elizabethan times, it came to mean ‘sober’ or ‘serious’.  The change clearly has come through a metaphorical application of the term denoting ‘full of thought or seriousness’ and finally, by extension of the metaphor, it became ‘full of sorrow’.

‘silly’ again the Anglo-Saxon word ‘saelig’ meant ‘happy’;  later, it came to denote an idea akin to our present day adjectives – ‘simple’ and ‘innocent’.  The transition from ‘simple’ or ‘innocent’ to ‘stupid’ is an obvious one.

Other examples: ‘Broadcast’ (a double metaphor), ‘pineapple’, ‘chest’, ‘bias’, etc.

  1. Euphemism:  Certain words have changed their meaning through being frequently used euphemistically.

Example:  ‘Passing’ or ‘decease’ have both become synonyms for ‘death’ and to ‘pass away’ or ‘to fall asleep’ are very commonly used instead of the verb to ‘die’.  According to strict etymological derivation ‘cemetery’ means ‘sleeping place’.  ‘Undertaker’ actually denoting in a general way ‘one who undertakes’, through euphemism has assumed a specialized meaning, by dropping the adjective, which at one time accompanied it and without it, it would have been unintelligible.

Other examples: ‘accident’, ‘casualty’, ‘fatality’, ‘idiot’, etc.

  1. Prudery: A number of euphemistic expressions have been traced to  a sense of ‘prudery’, ‘snobbery’ and ‘affectation’.

Member of a Prude:  one who pretends extreme propriety

Examples: ‘Paying Guest’ for  ‘boarder’, ‘financier’ for ‘money-lender’; even ‘plumbers’ are beginning to call themselves ‘sanitary engineers’.  Other examples are ‘fertilizer’ instead of ‘manure’, ‘expectorate’ instead of ‘spit’, ‘stomach’ instead of ‘guts’ and ‘belly’.

  1. Reversal of meaning:  A word may change its meaning to the point of actually reversing it for any reason already specified.

Example: ‘Grocer’ at the present day refers almost exclusively to a retail trader, but, at one time, as its derivation suggests, it meant only a wholesaler, i.e., a person who dealt ‘engros’ (in bulk).  Perhaps the change occurred due to the shifting of emphasis: if the wholesaler sold in bulk, the retailer bought in the same way.

‘Scan’ derived from the French ‘Scander’ and Latin ‘Scandere’ ; its root word means ‘to read through carefully’, but at the present time, it is frequently used in the sense of “to read through rapidly and perfunctorily”.  The term may have reversed its meaning through ironic application.

Perfunctorily – acting without zeal or enthusiasm

Other examples: ‘wiseacre’, ‘restive’, etc.

Wiseacre –one who unduly assumes an air or superior wisdom

Restive – inert; unwilling to go forward

11. Popular Misunderstanding:  Misunderstandings have been responsible for a change of meaning of certain words.

Example: ‘Helpmate’.  In the Book of Genesis, Chapter –II, VS 18, we read: “And the Lord said, ’It is not good that man should be alone’.  I will make a help meet for him.”  It is obvious that ‘meet’ is an adjective signifying ‘fitting’ or ‘suitable’.  Since the help was also a companion to man and since she became his mate or wife, the idea arose that a ‘help meet’ was a ‘mate’ who helped and thus we have ‘helpmate’ today.

Other examples: ‘Premises’, ‘transpire’, ‘demean, etc.

  1. Proper names becoming ordinary Parts of Speech:  Through force of association, the precise significance of the proper name is not always retained.  Thus the word ‘dunce’, for instance, is derived from the name of the Medieval Philosopher, Duns Scotus, whose opponents represented him as “a dry-as-dust” theorist devoid of scholarship.

‘Bedlam’ is an abbreviation of ‘Bethlehem Hospital’, a famous lunatic asylum of London.  Shakespeare uses the word as an alternative for ‘madman’.

Other examples:  ‘Maudlin’ from ‘Mary Magdalene’, ‘Gin’ from ‘Geneva’ and ‘boycott’ from Captain Boycott.