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07 Changes in word meaning

发布时间:2013-12-31 16:57:36  

English Lexicology
Changes in word meaning

Instructor: Liu Hongyong

Do you think the following two words are related or not? In what way are they related?

salt holy awe fond
nice lady lord

salary holiday awesome foolish
know loaf loaf


(awesome/awful day?)

<ne (Latin: not)+scire (Latin: know) <loaf+kneader (lady) <lo(af+wa)rd (lord)

? Definition of changes of word meaning ? Types of changes 1. Specialization 2. Extension 3. Degeneration 4. Elevation 5. Transference ? Causes of changes 1. Historical reason 2. Social reason 3. Psychological reason 4. Linguistic reason

Changes in word meaning

When a word loses its old meaning and comes to refer to something different, the result is a change in word meaning. Change of meaning refers to the alternation of the meaning of existing words, as well as the addition of new meaning to a particular word. Changing word meaning has never ceased since the beginning of the language and will continue in the future. The changes in meaning are gradual, and words are not changed in a day.




Types of Change

? ? ? ?

Extension of meaning Narrowing of meaning Elevation of meaning Degradation of meaning

Extension of Meaning

Generalization of Meaning It is a process by which a word which originally had a specialized meaning has now become generalized or has extended to cover a broader concept.
一个原本具有特殊意义的单词的词义被延伸,范 围扩大,可以用来指代一种更普遍的词义。


salary ? (original) a sum of money given to Roman soldiers to enable them to buy salt (政府按时发给古罗马军人一些买盐的钱) ? (present) fixed payment made by employer at regular intervals to employees (薪水)

holiday ? (original) holy day, a day of religious significance (宗教节日,神圣的日 子) ? (present) day of festivity or recreation
收获 由专指“农业收成”扩大到指称 “一切行为的所得”,如“参观的收 获”。

搁浅 由专指“船舶进入水浅的地方不能前进”扩大到指称 一切“事情遭到阻 碍而不能进行”, 如“这次旅游的事无限期地搁浅了。”

A large proportion of polysemous words of modern English have their meanings extended sometime in the course of development. Some words are generalized to such a degree that they can mean almost everything.

“Thing” which used to mean “a public She is such a pretty little thing. assembly” or “a council” in AngloI have to pack my things for the journey. There is another thing I want to ask you about. Saxon times, now has become an all-purpose That only makes things worse. word. Its meaning is so The thing is, can we finish the job in time? general, and we sometimes call this noun a ?light noun?.

A Chinese Example: …的话

她不喜欢你的话。 她不喜欢你的话,你就不要死皮赖脸的缠着她

“话” (original) Spoken words A light noun, which can refer to anything 请认真阅读: 江蓝生,2004,跨层非短语结构“的话”的词汇化,《中国语文》第5期: 387-400。 Jiang, L.-S. 2004. About the lexicalization of the cross-structural combination “de hua”. Zhongguo Yuwen 5: 387-400.

(downloadable from 中国期刊网)


Generalization of meaning is also found in many technical terms, which are confined to specialized use.

allergic ? (original) too sensitive to medicine 患过敏症的 ? (present) averse or disinclined to 反感的;厌恶的 alibi ? (original) a legal term signifying “the plea that the accused is not at the place when the crime is committed” (被告人不在 犯罪现场的证明) ? (present) excuse (借口)

Narrowing of Meaning 词义的缩小



It is a process by which a word of wide meaning acquires a narrow or specialized sense. In other words, a word which used to have a more general sense becomes restricted in its application and conveys a special concept in present-day English. 把词义范围较广的词缩小,表示特指,即过去具有普 遍意义的词变化后,现在仅仅表达特殊意义。 Narrowing; specialization; restriction

Example meat disease wife starve accident

Original Meaning food 食物 discomfort 不适 woman 妇女 to die event 事件

Meaning after Narrowing flesh of animals 肉 illness 疾病 married woman 妻子 to die of hunger unfortunate event 事故

Narrowing of Meaning
For economy, some phrases are shortened and only one element of the original, usually an adjective, is left to retain the meaning of the whole. Such adjectives have thus taken on specialized meanings. ? a general = a general officer ? an editorial = an editorial article Some material nouns are used to refer to objects made of them and thus have a more specific sense. ? glass a cup-like container or a mirror ? iron device for smoothing clothes

Change in associative meaning

Both extension and narrowing of meaning are talking about the changes in conceptual meaning. Next we will talk about the changes in associative meaning.
? ?

Elevation of meaning Degradation of meaning

Elevation of Meaning 词义的升华





It is the process by which words rise from humble beginnings to positions of importance. Some words early in their history signify something quite low or humble, but change to designate something agreeable or pleasant. 词义的升华指词由贬义或中性转变为褒义。即,有些 词在历史上表示“卑微、下贱”之义,随着时间的推 移转为“惬意的,愉快的”。 A “snarl” word becomes a “purr” word, or a slang becomes a common word. elevation; amelioration

Examples of elevation
nice ? ignorant --- foolish --- delightful, pleasant fond ? foolish --- affectionate Terrific headache awesome ? terrible---terrific Terrific party marshal ? a k

eeper of horses --- a high ranking army officer constable ? a keeper of horses --- a policeman

Degradation of Meaning 词义的降格

It is a process by which words with appreciatory or neutral affective meaning fall into ill reputation or come to be used in a derogatory sense.
这是一个词由原先表示褒义或者中性意义转为表 示贬义的过程。 A “purr” word becomes a “snarl” word. degradation, degeneration, pejoration


? ?

silly ? blessed and happy--- innocent----simple or simple-minded ----foolish sad ? full, satisfied, contented ----- calm -----serious ----sorrowful

Transference of Meaning 词义的转移

Definition ? Some words which were used to designate one thing but later changed to mean something else have experienced the process of semantic transfer, known as transference of meaning.

有些词原指称某些事物,后来发生变化,转为指 称另外的事物,就是词义的转移。

? ?


The lip of a wound 伤口的边缘 The tongues of fire The foot of a mountain

Causes of Change
Extra-linguistic factors ? Historical reason ? Social reason ? Psychological reason Linguistic factors ? Ellipsis ? Analogy ? Figurative use of words
? ?

Metaphor Metonym

Historical reason

A word is retained its original form, though its meaning has changed because the referent has changed.



Social reason
Language records the speech and attitude of different social classes, so different social varieties of language have come into being. ? The attitude of classes have penetrated into lexical meaning, particularly in the case of elevation and degradation. ? Quite a number of words that denote different sorts of working people or their occupations have taken on a pejorative sense. Churl, hussy, villain which were originally neutral have been down-graded as “ill-manned or bad people”.

Psychological reason

The associated transfer of meaning and euphemistic use of words, etc. are often due to psychological factors. People change word meaning owing to various psychological motives: love, respect, courtesy, suspicion, pessimism, sarcasm, irony, contempt, hatred, avoidance of embarrassment, etc.


Example: rubber
Occasionally you can see some good reason for a change of meaning. For example, the word rubber used to be used to mean ?eraser? in New Zealand varieties of English (as in British varieties), but was rejected in favor of eraser once rubber came to mean ?condom?. This kind of embarrassment has also led people in many parts of the English-speaking world to stop calling the male of the domestic fowl a cock, preferring rooster instead. This kind of embarrassment has been suggested as the reason that ass was replaced by the word donkey in everyday usage.

Linguistic factors

The change of meaning may be caused by the internal factors within the language system.

? ?

Ellipsis Borrowing Anal

ogy Figurative use of a word

Ellipsis (省略)

The meaning of a word may change when a phrase is shortened to one word which retains the meaning of the whole. This is called ellipsis.
The meaning of the word “gold” has changed from material to refer to the whole phrase “gold medal”. This kind of change often occurs in habitual collocations.

gold: gold medal daily: daily newspaper

The influx of borrowings has caused some words to change in meaning. deer (original) a wild animal of any sort from a lion to a mouse. In Middle Ages, the French word beste (=beast) became the general word. In 16th century, the Latin word animal was also adopted into the English vocabulary. Today deer can only refer to a particular kind of animal.

Analogy (类推)

If an adjective develops a new meaning, the derived noun from the adjective will have a corresponding new meaning by analogy. The process can be applied to a word of any word class. Diplomatic: Diplomacy Diplomacy (original) the art of dealing with international relations

Diplomatic (original) skillful in dealing with international relations


(present) skillful in dealing with any kind of relations

(present) ???

Figurative use of words
Change in word meaning may result from the figurative use of the language. Metaphor and metonymy are two important figures of speech (修辞手法).

Metaphor is a figure of speech containing an implied comparison based on similarity. A cunning person may be referred to as a fox. Here “fox” means something other than its literal meaning. The word “fox” gets the figurative meaning of “a cunning person”.

This is also a horse, but a metaphorical horse.

Example: foot
This meaning is derived through the metaphor “The last line on this page is the foot of the page.”

1. The lower extremity of the vertebrate leg that is in direct contact with the ground in standing or walking. 2. The lowest part; the bottom the foot of a mountain the foot of a page

Metonymy (借喻)

Metonymy is another important factor in semantic change. It is a figure of speech by which an object or an idea is described by the name of something else closely related to it.

如“敌人像狗一样夹着尾巴逃跑了”运用的是明 喻,换成借喻就是“这条狗夹着尾巴逃跑了”。 在上面 两句中,本体是“敌人”,喻体是 “狗”,喻词是“像”。由明喻到借喻,只是 省略了本体和喻词。因此所有借喻 只要增加 本体和喻词都可以转换成明喻。

Example: seat
Seat (its sense is extended to the right to sit as a member of a committee, such as the House of Commons)
He lost his seat in House of Commons.
The word “seat” has acquired the meaning of “the right to sit as a member” through the above metonym.

More Example: cradle
These meanings are derived through the following metonyms.

1. A small low bed for an infant, often furnished with rocker

s 2. The earliest period of life; infancy from the cradle to the grave 3. A place of origin; a birthplace the cradle of civilization.

? Definition of changes of word meaning ? Types of changes 1. Specialization 2. Extension 3. Degeneration 4. Elevation 5. Transference ? Causes of changes 1. Historical reason 2. Social reason 3. Psychological reason 4. Linguistic reason

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