Sciency Words: How Words Change

Hello, friends!  Welcome to Sciency Words, a special series here on Planet Pailly where we talk about those highly specialized words scientists use.  Words like:

I thought we’d do something a little different today and talk about some linguistic terms.  Linguistics is a science too, right?  Right.  So let’s go!

  • Semantic Generalization: a process of linguistic change where a word with some specific meaning ends up having a more general meaning.  My favorite example is the word “escape,” which originally meant “to get out of your clothes” (ex-cape) but has since generalized to mean getting out of all sorts of things.
  • Semantic Narrowing: a process of linguistic change where a word with a general meaning comes to mean something more specific.  A good example is the word “meat,” which used to refer to food in general but now refers specifically to food that comes from animal flesh.
  • Amelioration: a process of linguistic change where a word with a negative meaning or connotation comes to have a more positive meaning or connotation.  An example of amelioration that I’ve witnessed in my own lifetime is the word “geek.”  Geeks are cool now.  We didn’t used to be.
  • Pejoration: a process of linguistic change where a word with a positive meaning or connotation becomes more negative.  A great example is the word “awful.”  Originally, awful meant “worthy of awe.”  But if something’s worthy of awe, it could also be worthy of fear, and that no doubt contributed to the negative meaning we know today.

When I’m researching the etymologies of scientific terms, these four linguistic processes—generalization, narrowing, amelioration, and pejoration—come up a lot.  So much so that I thought I should do a post about them.  Don’t be surprised if I link back to this post in future Sciency Words posts!

9 thoughts on “Sciency Words: How Words Change

  1. Language evolves, which is why I’ve always seen debates about the “right” definition as unproductive. We can meaningfully debate about what the most common definition is, or how some regulating body defines it (although these days a Google search quickly resolves those kinds of disputes), or how a word was used in some historical period, but not about what the one and true definition is.

    The hard part is remembering this when reading historical writing. A lot of times, what seems like the most straightforward interpretation to us today, is not what the writer meant.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. That one bothers me too. I know, intellectually, that linguistic change happens. I also know, intellectually, that one word can have more than one definition. But the idea of organic vegetables (as opposed to what… silicon-based vegetables?) is still weird to me, and I think it always will be.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Oh, many thanks for these information. I have learned something new today because of you. Amelioration is actually a new word to me that came in this pandemic. Our government gave out social amelioration to those who need it. I have not heard of the word amelioration before that.

    Liked by 1 person

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