Shifty semantics

Meaghan Trewin
Meaghan Trewin

There’s a fairly well known brainteaser told by word nerds throughout the English-speaking world. The story goes that in 17th century London, England, when damage to Saint Paul’s Cathedral in was repaired, the monarch overseeing the repairs called the new architecture “amusing, awful and artificial.”

The joke is that when those words were spoken, the monarch was apparently giving high praise to the architect, as at the time “amusing” meant the building looked amazing, “awful” described something awe-inspiring and “artificial” meant artistically sophisticated. The story itself is likely a fabrication—different accounts of the story feature different monarchs ranging anywhere from King George I to James II to Queen Anne. But, whether true or false, the message of the story is significant: the meanings of words can change over time, sometimes so drastically as to render the original meaning altogether incomprehensible.

According to the website, semantic shift—the process by which the meanings of words change—can happen in a variety of ways. Some words become more specialized as time passes. “Meat,” for example, used to mean any kind of food, “deer” meant any kind of animal and “to starve” simply meant “to die.” Conversely, some words broaden in meaning, becoming more generalized over time. This is common with commercial brands, where the name Hoover has come to encompass all vacuum cleaners, or Kleenex now refers to any kind of facial tissue.

Yet another example of a generalization of meaning is the word “bird.” A bird used to mean simply a nestling or baby bird, but has since come to describe the animal in general.

Another common pattern of semantic shift is amelioration, when a word that has a neutral or negative connotation becomes a more optimistic term. In the Middle Ages, for example, “knight” meant a youth or boy, but over the years it has come to mean a male warrior. More commonly, however, words undergo pejorative shift and come to mean something more negative than their original definitions. The words “amusing,” “awful” and “artificial,” for instance, were once complimentary but have since become more critical and condescending.

“Silly,” for example, came from the Old English word “salig,” which described someone as happy, fortunate or blessed. The now-obsolete word “seely” picked up this meaning directly, being used well into the 13th century. By the 15th century, however, the meaning of “silly” shifted to someone deserving of pity and compassion, and more often than not, actually described sheep rather than humans. The modern connotation of “silly,” commenting on a person’s lack of intellect or foolishness, first appeared in the 16th century, and didn’t enter common vocabulary for another hundred years.

Some words change by picking up new meanings based on common metaphorical comparisons. This particular form of semantic change is especially popular in describing new technologies. Many technological terms originate out of comparison to a new technology’s function or appearance. The word “broadcast,” for example, used to refer to sowing seeds by spreading them across a field. Despite seeming unrelated, broadcast’s modern meaning stems from the original, as broadcasting now involves disseminating images and information, rather than seeds. More recently, words such as bug, mouse and web have all, thanks to technology, come to represent something completely different than their original meanings. Each of these words has adopted a new definition based on metaphorical connection: the computer bug and mouse appearing like or acting like the original animals, just as the information broadcasted over radio or television is being spread like seeds thrown across a field. Metaphorical extension, however, can also be more subtle, pairing words with uses we wouldn’t immediately consider supplementary. The word “illuminate” literally means to “light up,” but because of common comparisons between knowledge and light or between ignorance and darkness, “illuminate” can now also mean “to clarify” or “to inform.”

It would be interesting to see what someone from 17th-century England would make of the way we see that language today. It’s possible he or she would see these new meanings as amusing, awful and artificial—but there’s no telling what that would mean.

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