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Amelioration

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English

Think of the word 'nice', for example. The original meaning of the word was negative - it was a way to describe a person's actions as foolish, simple or ignorant. The word has been ameliorated over time and nowadays we use 'nice' in a positive sense - meaning someone or something that is good and pleasant.

What is amelioration?

Amelioration is a type of semantic change that elevates a word's meaning over time. A word that previously had a negative meaning develops a positive one. Sometimes this process is referred to as semantic melioration or semantic elevation. Amelioration occurs for different extralinguistic reasons, such as cultural factors and changes in society over time. Amelioration is less common than its opposite - pejoration.

What are some examples of amelioration?

You might be surprised to know that there are many words that we use on a daily basis that have been ameliorated. Let's have a look at some examples!

  • Dizzy

    In Old English, the word 'dizzy' meant 'foolish'. This meaning partially survives today in expressions such as 'a dizzy blonde', for example. However, by Middle English, the main meaning of the word 'dizzy' had become 'to suffer from vertigo' which is the meaning we associate with the word nowadays.

  • Pretty

    The word 'pretty' comes from West Saxon ('prættig'), Kentish ('pretti'), and Mercian ('prettig'). In Old English, the adjective was used to describe someone or something that was 'cunning, skillful, artful, wily, astute.' But by the year 1400, with language developing from Old English to Middle English, the word 'pretty' had taken on a new meaning which was 'manly, gallant'. With time, this meaning changed once again, to 'attractive, skillfully made' until it shifted to 'fine'. By the mid-fifteenth century the adjective 'pretty' was used to describe something or someone 'beautiful in a slight way, good looking' which is the meaning we still have for 'pretty' now.

  • Knight

    The word 'knight' comes from the Old English word 'cniht' which meant 'boy, youth, servant, attendant.' Around the year 1100, 'knight' came to mean 'military follower of a king or other superior.' Later, during the Hundred Years War, 'knight' took on a more specific military sense until around the sixteenth century when the word was used as a rank in the nobility.

  • Lord

    The roots of the word 'lord' are in Old English. 'Lord' comes from the Old English word 'hlafweard' which meant 'the keeper of the bread, the head of the household', or as we would call it today, the breadwinner. Later the word 'hlafweard' shortened - first it became 'hlaford' and then by the 13th century it was simply 'lord'. Over time, the word 'lord' went up the social ranks until it became indicative of status and power in society and not just in the family. The word reached its peak in hierarchy when it began to be used as a direct translation of 'Dominus' which, in religious tracts, is the Roman word for 'God'.

  • Lady

    Similarly to 'lord', the word 'lady' derives from the Old English word for 'kneader of the bread, the woman of the household' which is 'hlaefdige'. By the 13th century, the meaning of the word had changed to 'a woman of superior position in society'. Nowadays, the word 'lady' has kept its 13th-century meaning but it is also used to describe any woman.

    Consider these two examples that reveal the two different meanings we associate the word 'lady' with:

    Of course she only drinks champagne and wears silk - she is a proper lady!

    Have you seen my grandmother? An old lady with short white hair who usually wears a red coat.

  • Terrific

The word 'terrific' comes from the Latin word 'terrificus' which meant 'causing terror or fear, frightful'. With time, the negative meaning of the word weakened, and it changed from 'frightful' to 'severe'. The expression 'terrific headache' as in 'severe headache' first appeared in 1809. The sense of the word 'terrific' that we still use now - meaning 'excellent' - began to be used later in the 19th century, in 1888.

Note that another adjective - 'terribly' - that derives from the same source as 'terrific', has also been ameliorated with time. From a word used to describe something that causes fear, terribly is now an alternative for 'very':

I am terribly sorry I'm late.

  • Sick

The case of the word 'sick' is a more recent example of amelioration. 'Sick' derives from the Old English word 'seoc' and from the Proto-Germanic word 'seuka' which meant 'ill, diseased, feeble, weak; corrupt; sad, troubled, deeply affected'.

Today, the original meanings of the word are still in use:

I'm sorry, I can't come to work today. I'm afraid I'm sick, the doctor said I need to stay in bed.

This example sentence uses the word 'sick' in the sense of 'mentally unwell, ill'.

How can you kill bunnies just for fun ?! You're sick!

In the context of this sentence, the word 'sick' means 'corrupt, troubled'.

Both of these contemporary uses of 'sick' have negative connotations. However, as a modern slang term, the word has been elevated and has taken on the positive meaning of 'great':

You have the new iPhone! That's sick!

Think of other slang words that have gone through a similar process like 'wicked', for example.

What is the importance of amelioration?

Just like any other type of semantic change, improvement is an important process in the development of language. Through amelioration, some words in the English language have adapted to the changing times and to the sociocultural situations. Learning about which words have been elevated and taken on a positive meaning shows us how societal perceptions of language have changed over time.

It's interesting to imagine and guess what words that we associate with something negative today would be ameliorated with time. For example, imagine if, in 200 years, the word 'stupid' changes its meaning and refers to someone or something good or even clever.

Amelioration vs pejoration

Pejoration is a type of semantic change that is more common than amelioration. Pejoration involves the process of degenerating meaning over time so that a word takes on more negative connotations. To put it simply, pejoration is the opposite of amelioration. While amelioration is a process in which a word that used to have a more negative meaning develops a more positive one over time, pejoration occurs when the once positive meaning of a word changes into a more negative one.

The word 'attitude' is an example of pejoration. The original meaning of 'attitude' was 'position, pose'. Later, the sense of the word shifted and it was associated with 'mental state, mode of thinking' until its meaning took on more negative connotations and it began to be associated with what we understand by 'attitude' today - 'confronting, uncooperative manner'.

Let's compare two sentences - one uses a word that has gone through the process of amelioration, while the other uses a word that has gone through the opposite process of pejoration.

Amelioration: I'm having a lovely time - today is a nice day!

The word 'nice' that used to be negative a long time ago, now clearly has a positive meaning - in this sentence, 'nice' indicates that the person is having a good day.

Pejoration: I must tell you that your kid has been misbehaving - he's got an attitude problem.

The word 'attitude' that used to simply refer to a person's position and state of mind, is now associated with negative behavior, as shown in this sentence.

Amelioration - Key takeaways

  • Amelioration is a type of semantic change that elevates a word's meaning over time, so that a word that previously had a negative meaning develops a positive one.
  • Amelioration is also referred to as semantic melioration or semantic elevation.
  • Some examples of amelioration are words we use on a daily basis, such as 'nice', 'pretty' and 'lady'. Some slang words, such as 'sick' and 'wicked', have also been elevated.
  • Amelioration is an important process in the development of language which shows us how societal perceptions have changed over time.
  • Amelioration is less common than its opposite process - pejoration. Pejoration is a type of semantic change that degenerates the meaning of a word over time so that word takes on more negative connotations.

Amelioration

To ameliorate means to improve something and make it better.

In Linguistics, amelioration is a type of semantic change, also known as semantic meloration or semantic elevation, that changes a word's meaning over time. Through the process of amelioration a word that used to have a negative meaning develops a positive one.

Ameliorate is pronounced like this: uh-mee-lee-uh-rayt.

The word 'pretty' is an example of amelioration. 'Pretty' used to have the negative meaning of someone or something that was cunning and astute. Today 'pretty' refers to someone or something that is beautiful.

The opposite of amelioration is pejoration (degenerating meaning over time so that a word takes on more negative connotations).

Final Amelioration Quiz

Question

 What did 'pretty' mean in Middle English?

Show answer

Answer

 Manly, gallant

Show question

Question

What did 'lord' mean in Old English?

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Answer

 The keeper of the bread

Show question

Question

Which sentence DOESN'T use an ameliorated word?

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Answer

 I don't like your attitude, young man.

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Question

What is the opposite of amelioration?

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Answer

Pejoration

Show question

Question

What is a synonym of amelioration?


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Answer

 Semantic elevation

Show question

Question

True or False: Amelioration is more common than pejoration.

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Answer

False.

Show question

Question

 Why is amelioration important?


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Answer

 Because it shows us how societal perceptions have changed over time.

Show question

Question

Which word has a double meaning in our language today?

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Answer

 Lady

Show question

Question

Which sentence includes amelioration?

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Answer

 Thank you for being so nice to my brother!

Show question

Question

What is the origin of the word ‘’terrific’’?


Show answer

Answer

 Frightful

Show question

Question

Which word is a slang term that has been ameliorated over time?


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Answer

 Sick

Show question

Question

What did the word `` knight '' mean in Old English?


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Answer

 Boy, youth


Show question

Question

Which word is NOT an example of amelioration?

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Answer

 Attitude

Show question

Question

Fill in the blank:


Amelioration is a type of ________ change.

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Answer

semantic 

Show question

Question

Which best describes the meaning of amelioration?

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Answer

A word that previously had a negative meaning develops a positive one.

Show question

Question

Amelioration is ____ common than pejoration.

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Answer

less

Show question

Question

True or false?


Amelioration elevates a word's meaning over time.

Show answer

Answer

True

Show question

Question

In Old English, the word dizzy meant what?

Show answer

Answer

foolish

Show question

Question

'Dominus' is the Roman word for what?

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Answer

God

Show question

Question

_____________ is an important process in the development of language.

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Answer

improvement

Show question

Question

Fill in the blank:


The word 'terrific' comes from the Latin word _________.

Show answer

Answer

terrificus

Show question

Question

True or false?


Amelioration is also known as semantic elevation.

Show answer

Answer

True

Show question

Question

Amelioration occurs for different _______________ reasons.

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Answer

extralinguistic

Show question

Question

What did 'lady' mean in Old English?

Show answer

Answer

kneader of the bread

Show question

Question

The word 'sick' derives from the Old English word ____.

Show answer

Answer

seoc

Show question

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