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Pejoration

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English

Sticks and stones may break your bones, but words can never hurt you. We all know this age-old saying, and we all know that words can hurt. But did you know that certain slurs, insults, and other pejorative language haven't always had such negative meanings?

Pejoration is the process by which a word develops a negative meaning or negative connotations over time. It is a type of semantic change.

Semantic change refers to a change in the meaning of a word over time.

These words did not always have negative connotations but, as society progresses and our use of language changes, the meaning of words can change and develop.

Pejoration is sometimes called 'deterioration' or 'degeneration'. All terms can be used synonymously however the term 'pejoration' is most commonly used.

The term derives from the Latin word 'peior' meaning 'worse' whilst the suffix '-ation' refers to a process or result. The term 'pejoration' therefore refers to the process by which a word becomes pejorative.

Pejorative Meaning

A word that is 'pejorative' is a word that expresses disapproval, discontent, criticism, or other negative connotations. Pejorative language may be used as a slur or to insult someone.

It is important to remember that different terms are perceived as pejorative by different groups of people. For example, people in certain social or ethnic groups may perceive a term as pejorative that others don't (and vice versa). This can develop over time as societal values change.

Pejorative synonym

Other synonyms you may find for 'pejorative' include, disparaging, derogatory, deprecatory, degrading, and belittling. The term 'pejorative' therefore refers to when a word becomes pejorative (or synonyms of the word, as seen above).

Pejoration: Some Examples in English

Now that we know what the term 'pejoration' means, let's delve a bit deeper into examples of pejoration in everyday life.

Everyday examples

Bet you didn't know the history behind these everyday words!...

Silly

  • In the Early Middle English period (11th-13th century), the word 'seely' (or 'sely') was used to describe someone as happy, fortunate, or blessed.
  • As time went on, the definition shifted to mean someone innocent, holy, and pure. Then again to mean someone naïve.
  • Eventually, the word became associated with its present-day connotations of foolishness and idiocy.
  • We see examples of Shakespeare using 'silly' in the same context that we would use today e.g. 'this is the silliest stuff that ever I heard' - Shakespeare, A Midsummer Night's Dream (1595). Here, 'silliest' refers to the most ridiculous and stupid thing the speaker has ever heard.
  • This demonstrates how the meaning of the word has changed since the Middle English period, developing negative connotations over time. This is therefore an example of pejoration.

Attitude

  • The word 'attitude' is technically a term that describes a figure's posture or position in a piece of art, as well as describing someone's mental state or mode of thinking.
  • However, in today's society, the word 'attitude' is commonly thought of in its negative context rather than simply describing someone's thoughts on something.
  • For example, if we were to say 'she's got an attitude' it would suggest the person is rude, arrogant, and confrontational.
  • This is an example of pejoration as a fairly neutral term has developed negative connotations over time and is now commonly used in a pejorative way.

Attitude Pejoration Semantic Change StudySmarterGirl with an attitude (Pexels)

Awful

  • Believe it or not, the term 'awful' used to have positive connotations, similar to the words 'awe-inspiring' and 'awesome'. It was understood in the literal sense i.e. 'worthy of awe'.
  • However, things that are worthy of awe aren't always positive. Over time, the word 'awful' developed negative connotations of something that is bad.
  • Nowadays, 'awful' has particularly bad connotations and is used to describe something that is dreadful or appalling.
  • This is a great example of pejoration as the meaning of the word has greatly changed from having positive connotations to very negative connotations.

Cunning/crafty

  • In Middle English, the words 'cunning' and 'crafty' were used in a positive way to describe a knowledgeable, skilful person, such as a 'cunning tradesman' or a 'crafty silversmith'.
  • Since then, the words 'cunning' and 'crafty' have gone through the process of pejoration, both referring to someone who is dishonest and skilful in deceiving others.
  • Both words have therefore developed negative connotations and are seen as pejorative.

We study the etymology of a word to see the history of a word or phrase and the changes in its meaning over time.

How does language become pejorative?

There is no specific reason why some language becomes pejorative. However, some possible reasons include:

  • Shift in societal values – over time our values as a society change. This can lead to shifts in language and meaning associated with these changing values e.g. certain words may become politically incorrect.
  • Euphemisms- euphemisms are words that refer to something unpleasant in an indirect way e.g. using the word 'restroom' to refer to the toilet. These euphemisms can then develop negative meanings as they become associated with an unpleasant subject.

Pejoration of female-related terms

Language reflects our cultural attitudes, both from the past and in the present. This is why it is interesting studying the meaning of words and how they have changed over time.

When looking at the history of terms used to describe women, we find that many of the words have become pejorative over the years, reflecting sexism in society and negative attitudes towards women.

Let's look at some examples of pejoration of female-related terms:

In the past, the word 'mistress' mainly referred to a woman who had authority and was the female equivalent of the word 'master'. However, this term went through the process of pejoration and, over time, has come to refer to the side girlfriend of a married man.

Another example is the word 'spinster' which used to refer to women who worked spinning yarn or thread. Over time, it became associated with unmarried women and gained negative connotations of undesirability.

If we compare these words to the male equivalent, we see a big difference in meaning. 'Master' is the male equivalent of 'mistress' and has connotations of power and control while 'bachelor' is the male equivalent of 'spinster' and has connotations of independence and wealth (think 'bachelor pads' with huge TVs and a city view).

So why do female-related terms, that were once simply equivalent to the male-related terms, become so pejorative? The language we use is reflective of our cultural attitudes, suggesting that the imbalance of word meaning is reflective of a continuing imbalance of power between men and women in society.

What is the importance of pejoration?

The process of pejoration reflects how social values and perceptions of language have changed over the years. The English language is constantly changing and adapting to suit the societies that use it. This means that pejoration is an important process in linguistics as it allows people to fully make use of a language and use it to express what they mean.

Dictionaries are constantly being revised and, as the meaning of a word changes, the meaning in the dictionary will also change.

Who knows which words are next in the process of pejoration. For example, imagine if being called 'nice' or 'lovely' is an insult in a few hundred years time! Only time will tell.

Amelioration and Pejoration

The opposite of pejoration is a process called 'amelioration', which is another type of semantic change.

Amelioration is the process by which a word develops a positive meaning over time.

An example of this is the word 'terrific' which originally described something that caused terror or fear. Over time, the meaning of the word weakened, changing to mean 'severe' e.g. 'I have a terrific headache!' ('I have a severe headache!'). In the late 19th century, 'terrific' developed the positive meaning, similar to the word 'excellent', that we know today.

Other types of semantic change

As we have mentioned, pejoration and amelioration are types of semantic change. There are three other types of semantic change. These are:

Narrowing

Narrowing is the process by which the meaning of a word becomes more specific over time. For example, the word 'hound' originally referred to all dogs whereas now it refers to a specific type of hunting dog, as seen in the dictionary definition. This is an example of narrowing as the meaning has become less generalised.

Broadening

Broadening is the process by which the meaning of a word becomes more generalised over time. For example, the word 'business' was originally used to refer to a state of being busy; however, the meaning broadened over time to refer to an occupation or commercial activity. This is an example of broadening as the meaning has become less specific.

Semantic reclamation

Semantic reclamation is when a word is 'reclaimed' by individuals or groups that the word was once used to oppress. An example of this is the word 'suffragette' which was first used by a reporter to belittle the women fighting for the vote. The suffragettes reclaimed the word as their own and it is now the defining word in the dictionary describing women who protest the right to vote.

Pejoration - Key Takeaways

  • Pejoration is the process by which a word develops a negative meaning or negative connotations over time. It is a type of semantic change.

  • The process of pejoration occurs as the values of a society shift. This can lead to shifts in language and meaning associated with these changing values.

  • It is important to remember that different terms are perceived as pejorative by different groups of people.

  • An example of pejoration is the word 'silly' which meant 'happy' or 'fortunate' in the Middle English period. The meaning shifted to mean 'innocent' or 'holy', then again to 'naïve'. Nowadays, 'silly' has negative connotations of foolishness and idiocy.

  • The opposite of pejoration is a process called 'amelioration'. Amelioration is the process by which a word develops a positive meaning over time.

Pejoration

Pejoration is the process by which a word develops a negative meaning or negative connotations over time. It is a type of semantic change.

An example of pejoration is the word 'silly' which meant 'happy' or 'fortunate' in the Middle English period. The meaning shifted to mean 'innocent' or 'holy', then again to 'naïve'. Nowadays, 'silly' has negative connotations of foolishness and idiocy. 

Pejoration and amelioration are both types of semantic change. They are opposites. Pejoration refers to the process by which a word develops a negative meaning over time whereas amelioration refers to the process by which a word develops a positive meaning over time. 

A word that is 'pejorative' is a word that expresses disapproval, discontent, criticism, or other negative connotations. Pejorative language may be used as a slur or to insult someone. 

The opposite of pejoration is amelioration. Amelioration is when a word gains a more positive meaning over time.

Final Pejoration Quiz

Question

Fill in the blanks:


Pejoration is the process by which a word develops a _______ meaning or ________ connotations over time.

Show answer

Answer

negative

Show question

Question

True or false?


Pejoration is a type of semantic change.

Show answer

Answer

True

Show question

Question

What is semantic change?

Show answer

Answer

Semantic change refers to a change in the meaning of a word over time.

Show question

Question

True or false?


Pejoration is sometimes called 'deterioration' or 'degeneration'.

Show answer

Answer

True

Show question

Question

How does the term ‘pejorative’ differ from the term ‘pejoration’?

Show answer

Answer

Pejoration refers to the process by which a word becomes pejorative. A word that is 'pejorative' is a word that expresses disapproval, discontent, criticism, or other negative connotations. 

Show question

Question

True or false?


Certain terms are perceived as pejorative by all groups of people.

Show answer

Answer

False

Show question

Question

What did the word ‘silly’ mean in Middle English?

Show answer

Answer

Happy/fortunate

Show question

Question

In Middle English, ‘awful’ meant ‘worthy of awe’. Nowadays it has a negative meaning and describes something dreadful. This is an example of what?

Show answer

Answer

Pejoration

Show question

Question

What did crafty/cunning mean in Middle English?

Show answer

Answer

A knowledgeable, skilful person

Show question

Question

True or false?


Language can become pejorative due to shifts in societal values and language associated with these changing values.


Show answer

Answer

True

Show question

Question

True or false?


The English language is fixed and unchanging.

Show answer

Answer

False

Show question

Question

True or false?


The dictionary definition of a word can never change. The meaning will always stay the same.

Show answer

Answer

False

Show question

Question

What is the opposite of pejoration?

Show answer

Answer

Amelioration is the opposite of pejoration.

Show question

Question

Fill in the blank:


Amelioration is the process by which a word develops a _________ meaning over time.

Show answer

Answer

Amelioration is the process by which a word develops a positive meaning over time.

Show question

Question

Which of the following is NOT a type of semantic change?

Show answer

Answer

Differentiation

Show question

Question

Pejoration derives from the Latin word 'peior', meaning what?

Show answer

Answer

Worse

Show question

Question

A pejorative word has ________ connotations.

Show answer

Answer

negative

Show question

Question

True or false?


Pejorative language may be used to insult someone.

Show answer

Answer

True

Show question

Question

Fill in the blank:


We study the _________ of a word to see the history of a word or phrase and the changes in its meaning over time.

Show answer

Answer

etymology

Show question

Question

Euphemisms are words that refer to something unpleasant in ____________ way.

Show answer

Answer

an indirect

Show question

Question

Fill in the blank:


Euphemisms can develop ________ meanings as they become associated with an unpleasant subject.


Show answer

Answer

negative

Show question

Question

the suffix '-ation' in the word 'pejoration' refers to what?

Show answer

Answer

A process or result 

Show question

Question

Fill in the blank:


A possible reason why some language becomes pejorative is because of a shift in ________ values.

Show answer

Answer

societal

Show question

Question

True or false?


Language does not reflect our cultural attitudes.

Show answer

Answer

False

Show question

Question

The word 'spinster' used to refer to women who did what?

Show answer

Answer

Worked spinning yarn or thread

Show question

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