CP + SL 4
LANGUAGE CHANGE – Lexical developments.
The purpose of this work is to introduce to five key ways in which lexis is
acknowledged to “change”:
1. narrowing 2. widening
3. amelioration 4. pejoration
5. loss of intensity
The exercises, marked by , are designed to give you some well known
examples of these types of lexical change and to get you applying the terms
Ultimately you will attempt to apply these new terms to lexical items from The
1. NARROWING OF MEANING
This is when words move from a broad meaning to a more specific or narrow
meaning e.g. to starve, an Old English verb [steorfan] originally had a broad general
use meaning: to die. The 16th century, more specific meaning: „die of hunger‟ is the
one that has survived in the modern standard language, so we say that it has
Complete the sentences below.
accident, once meant a chance event or happening, now narrowed to…
Science, meant all knowledge, while what we call science was termed natural
philosophy, science now means…
Desert, any uninhabited place, now means only …
Undertaker, anyone who undertakes something, now refers to …
Deer, originally meant any animal, now means …
Meat, meant food i.e. one man‟s meat is another man‟s poison, now …
Discipline, once meaning to train in general, now implies...
a) Why do you think these changes occur?
b) What implications do these changes have when you read older texts?
2. WIDENING OF MEANING
This is when words move from a specific or narrow meaning to a more broad or
general meaning e.g. rubbish, in early modern English meant rubble, and has
developed a wider meaning of waste matter, anything worthless. We say that it has
Words often take on a wider meaning when they move out of the language of some
special group and get adopted by the speech community as a whole i.e. junk was
originally sailors‟ slang and meant old rope, but now has a wider meaning of useless
stuff, rubbish since it has moved out of its restricted sailors‟ jargon.
Similarly, gambit is a term used in chess, meaning „an opening in which White offers
a pawn sacrifice‟ but has a wider meaning outside chess to describe any open move.
Amelioration is when a word acquires more favourable connotations, or positive
semantic value e.g. success simply meant result and now means a good result.
Knight once merely meant servant and came to mean a loyal and chivalrous servant,
it has picked up positive semantic value.
Amelioration is often the result of general change in social or cultural attitudes. Thus
in the late 17th century, the words enthusiasm and zeal were considered in a
negative light, they were pejorative terms, implying violence and fanaticism because
of their association with revolutionary Puritanism, but as English society changed
and the civil wars were forgotten these negative associations were lost and we have
positive meanings for both these words now.
Democracy was once a pejorative term but is now in the eyes of the West a term of
praise and a desirable social institution.
What social changes do these linguistic changes reflect?
4. PEJORATION (or Deterioration)
Pejoration is when a word acquires disagreeable connotations, or negative
semantic value e.g. lust in Old English meant desire or pleasure but today implies
illicit or intemperate sexual desire.
Human nature being what it is, „pejoration‟ is commoner than amelioration. Here are
some well know examples of pejoration:
coy – once meant quiet and modest
cunning – meant skillful,
gaudy meant brilliant and cheerful,
uncouth meant unknown.
Villain, knave and lewd are further examples where words have picked up negative
semantic value, examples of pejoration. Many words related to women in society
have also accumulated negative semantic value over time.
a) write out a short sentence each for coy, cunning, gaudy and uncouth
to discuss how the modern meaning of each word shows pejoration. You
might need a dictionary to do this.
b) Look up villain and knave and note what social situation is reflected in the
perjoration of these words.
5. LOSS OF INTENSITY
The meaning of a word is determined by the contexts in which it is used. The word
hellish has become used to describe, not the “agonies of the damned writhing in hell”
but the kind of discomfort experienced in the rush hour for example. So, this word
has faded and lost its intensity. The word awful which once meant causing
reverence or fear has been substantially weakened in meaning i.e. the weather was
awful. This is partly due to a reduction in the power of the church in everyday life.
However, in Puritan Societies, where the church was very important, these spiritual
words would have an intensity that you struggle to grasp
Use an etymology dictionary to explore weakened meanings in the
following words. In which sort of contexts are these words used today and
how does this contrast with their original intensity?
Scarlet Letter Samples
draught Use an etymology dictionary to check
gossip how these words have changed in
marry meaning over time.
naughty For each one, write a short sentence
rude which uses the relevant technical terms:
seed narrowing / widening
simples (medical context) amelioration /pejoration
stripes loss of intensity.
You know the terms used to describe lexical changes over time.
You have applied them to specific examples from your text.
If you find new examples you will be able to check them in an etymology
dictionary and write succinct explanations.