Historical Linguistics/Semantic Change

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Just as the pronunciation of words change over a language history, so do their meanings and connotations. Unlike sound changes and other highly regular processes, semantic change is entirely unsystematic: the change of any one word is independent and generally unaffected by the changes of other words.

Common Types of Semantic Change[edit]

Influences of Phonetic Similarity[edit]

Words which sound similar will converge or become more similar in meaning.

  • eg. Obnoxious once meant "exposed to injury," but now means "annoying, offensive, or objectionable" - a change motivated by the words resemblance to "noxious"
  • eg. Some speakers use "bemused" and "amused" interchangeably.


A word comes to refer to a more general set of things than its earlier use.

Leeched Diminutives[edit]

A word frequently used as a diminutive changes to refer to the thing it describes generally

  • A subset of widening
  • eg. New High German Mädchen 'girl' was originally a diminutive of Magd 'girl'


A broad category comes to refer to a specific element

  • eg. corn, meaning grain, shifted to refer specifically to maize.
  • eg. meat, meaning food, shifted to refer specifically to food made from animal flesh.

Pejorization amd Meliorization[edit]

Respectively, when a word comes to refer to positive or negative instances of its base meaning.

  • eg. dom, meaning judgement, became doom, meaning peril, a pejorization.

Semantic Bleaching[edit]

An intensifier becomes weaker in meaning.

  • eg. terribly once meant "so extreme as to be terrifying" whereas now one might say "I terribly glad to see you."


Taboo terms are replaced with other existing words.