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Semantic Change: Evolution of a Word

Jun 01, 2016 09:28AM ● Published by Cassidy Ward

By Cassidy Ward | cassidy@ogdensource.com

Ogden - It’s not uncommon for people to think of language as something well defined, literally. Words have stable meaning and knowing those meanings is the key to clear communication. Though any linguist will tell you that language is actually far from static, meanings change and evolve like a slow moving but never-ending Tower of Babel. Good communication isn’t just about knowing a word’s official definition, but about knowing how it’s actually being used by the populace at any particular moment. 

Words and meanings that originally start out as slang terms often become officially recognized terms and definitions, one need only look at the evolution of words like “bad” or more recently, “swag” to see change happening. 

This is no new phenomenon, words have been evolving presumably for as long as there have been words and historically speaking, the change happens quickly. Shakespeare wrote plays that could be easily understood by the uneducated masses but the English language has changed so much in a few centuries that most adults struggle to fully grasp even the most well-known passages. 

The mechanism of change is varied, sometimes a word is altered by overuse, causing its meaning to be watered down in the process, this often necessitates the creation of new words to take the place of the now irrelevant previous word. Sometimes meaning begins broad and becomes more specific over time. Sometimes words become a euphemism or analogy, making their meaning broader or symbolic. Sometimes the change is seemingly nonsensical, changing to such a degree as to make the original meaning unrecognizable.  

Lingual evolution is, by all accounts, a good thing. It is the measurable effect of a change in our culture. New paradigms require either the creation of new words or the co-opting and redefining of existing ones. Examples of evolved words may be an indicator of social growth, but it can certainly be uncomfortable for those of us who learned a language under one set of rules are now forced to adapt to catch up to the rapid changes. Here are 20 or so examples of words whose meanings have changed beyond recognition.

Artificial: Now used to mean something false, synthetic, unnatural. Artificial was originally used to identify something full of artistic or technical skill. It’s easy to see how that original definition would still apply to most artificial things, but it isn’t our first thought when we hear the word used.

Fantastic: Now used to mean anything that’s at least moderately cool or exciting. If one is presented with a good piece of pizza, it’s not out of the question that you might say, “This pizza is fantastic!” Derived from the French word “fantastique” it originally referred to things beyond imagination or existing only in the imagination. It’s no wonder that it shares the same root word as “Fantasy.”

Garble: In what is perhaps the most ironic example of pedantic change, the word “garble” is now used to refer to something that’s all mixed up or incomprehensible. Originally it referred to sorting something out. The exactly opposite meaning as the one it holds today. Speaking of irony…

Ironic: If you ever want to start a heated debate among language lovers, mention irony, or the Oxford Comma. For an example of modern, and potentially flawed, usage of the word “ironic” look no further than the paragraph above. The concept of irony is used in various ways today to express something surprising, unusual or coincidental. Irony was originally intended to refer to a statement that conveys a meaning opposite to its actual meaning, think sarcasm but subtler. Words like this beg the question, which definition is more valid, the technically correct one, or the one people are actually using?

Awesome: This is probably the most overused and diluted word on the list. Today, everything from a new season of your favorite show to 15 extra minutes of sleep is awesome. We use the term to refer to anything even minimally good which, is a far cry from the originally intended meaning of something that literally inspires awe whether good or bad. A space shuttle launch is awesome, a 7.1 earthquake is awesome, realizing you have a leftover slice of pizza in the fridge—not awesome. A satisfying surprise perhaps.

Theory: These days we have theories about everything. If your boss wants to speak to you in their office at the end of the day, you probably have a theory. If your best friend hasn’t spoken to you in weeks, you probably have a theory. When it comes to who Jon Snow’s mom or Rey’s parents are, you most probably have a theory, except that you don’t. What you really have is a hypothesis. Whenever you utter the words, “My theory is…” what you are really saying is, here is my (probably moderately) educated guess based on what minimal information I have and heavily weighted by personal biases. What you have there, is a hypothesis, and not a particularly good one. The word theory, in the scientific sense, actually carries much more weight than that. Only when a hypothesis is well defined and repeatedly tested, only when an idea has been confirmed beyond a reasonable doubt does it attain the title of theory. To be a theory means to be a well thought out model based on and including all available information. The watering down and colloquial use of the term has caused some heartache in scientific debate, leading to the rebuttal “It’s only a theory” which shows a clear misunderstanding of the term by those who employ it. 

Meat: There’s no ambiguity here, right? Meat refers to animal flesh, beef, pig, chicken, et al. However, originally the word “meat” referred to any food. You can see the remnants of this original meaning when referring to the substance of some vegetables i.e. “the meat of a tomato.” 

Doom: This word has attained a universally negative connotation now. Doom refers to a looming threat of a grave nature, or to an old computer video game. Originally it carried a more generalized definition that could be either good or bad. It referred mostly to fate or destiny. This definition can be seen in the world of J.R.R. Tolkien who uses the word commonly throughout his words. Most notably is Mt. Doom which, in the current linguistic climate feels like a cheap amusement park ride but originally meant that it was the mountain of Frodo’s fate or destiny. It sounds a lot cooler that way.

Friend/Follower: The meaning of these words hasn’t changed per se. They still mean what they’ve meant for quite some time: a close personal relation and a person who subscribes to your philosophy, a literal follower. Both words have picked up additional meanings based on the context. We use both terms in a social media context to mean those people online who are a part of our digital networks. Speaking of the internet…

Meme: What is a meme? It’s almost as difficult to define as why one thing goes viral instead of another. The term “meme” most commonly refers to a bitesize piece of content generated propagated on the Internet. The most common memes are in the form of still images with words overlaid but the term is also used to refer to a humorous or interesting concept, and in the gladiator battlefield that is the Internet, they don’t tend to last very long. The term was actually coined in 1976 by English evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins, in his book “The Selfish Gene.” Dawkins proposed that ideas and concepts could behave like organisms, propagating themselves from person to person, adapting, evolving, only the strong survive and that this was, in fact, the source of all human culture. Dawkins gave the concept the title mimeme and shortened to “meme” for easy use, also for its similar sound to gene. This is an example of a word being overused and diluted over time. Once you understand both definitions it’s easy to see that all memes are memes, but not all memes are memes. 

Queer/Gay/Black/African-American/Idiot/Moron/Retarded: For the most part, semantic change is fairly harmless and causes only minor snafus amongst users. The situation becomes riskier when the words that are evolving are those we use to refer to groups of people. If some of the words in the above header made you uncomfortable even to see them written, you are not alone. Each of the above words began as a descriptor and not always, as is the case with the word “gay” even a descriptor of a group of people. Each of them, at one time or another, was used to refer to individuals and groups not necessarily with malicious intent. “Idiot,” “moron” and “retarded” all began as scientifically valid words for describing a mental state but over time were co-opted as general insults. “Queer,” “Gay,” “Black” and “African-American” are the Schrodinger’s Cats of language, simultaneously offensive and non-offensive depending on the context and the person using them. This has a tendency to cause uncomfortable situations between those employing the words and those who are the targets when the perceived intent is not nice. Speaking of nice…

Nice: What possible problems could we uncover with this word? It is the purest, most unambiguous word, almost synonymous with good. A person can be nice, an event, a situation, a piece of artwork can all be nice. All of these are positive. So, it might surprise you to know that the word “nice” is derived from the Latin word “nescius” meaning ignorant and was generally used to describe a person who was foolish or silly. Along the way, it came to mean cowardice, sloth, extravagance or ostentation. During the 18th century, these qualities were admired and the negative connotation became a positive one. While society no longer values those traits in a person, the positive connotation of the word “nice” stuck.

Backlog: Referring to a large stockpile of unfinished work. The term originally referred to the largest piece of wood, placed in the back of a fireplace and meant to sustain a blaze. 

Pedant: Today we use this term to describe someone who is overbearing in their need to correct seemingly minute details. To be pedantic is largely considered a character flaw. Originally it referred to a good teacher, someone who is knowledgeable. Somewhere along the way it picked up the additional meaning of someone who is overbearingly so, taking the meaning from positive to negative in the process.

RAM/AIDS: Sometimes it isn’t the words themselves that evolve, instead something comes along that by way of an acronym, hijacks a word until its meaning is overshadowed by the new concept. When you hear the words “RAM” or “AIDS” your first thought probably isn’t hitting something at high speed or an office assistant, that is a testament to these very successful acronyms. 

Egregious: When someone breaks out this powerhouse of a word you know they’re serious. Today, “egregious” means incredibly bad, negative in the highest degree, but originally that wasn’t the case. Once again we have to go back to the original Latin. “Egregious” comes from the Latin word for “flock” and literally meant to tower above the flock, distinguished, excellent, renowned. In short, it referred to things that are good in the highest degree. The cause of the polar shift in meaning is largely unknown, though linguists have some theories… er, hypotheses. 

Mad: The most common definition refers to someone being in an angered state. Fans of Lewis Carroll know that isn’t the only meaning. The Mad Hatter wasn’t particularly angry, but was absolutely insane. 

Apology: If this list went a little long for your taste, allow me to apologize, and by that I mean “apologize” in its original definition which was not an admission of guilt and remorse, but rather a defense and justification of one’s actions. 

Semantic change is interesting, words are the tools we use to give order to our thoughts and their shifting definitions give us a glimpse into the collective consciousness of our societies. So the next time you hear someone misuse a word, rather than be a pedant about the situation, consider that perhaps they are simply ahead of the curve. 

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