Semantic Change

Semantics refers to the study of meaningThere are two types of semantics: logical and lexical. Logical semantics is the study of reference (the symbolic relationship between language and real-world objects) and implication (the relationship between two sentences). Lexical semantics is the analysis of word meaning.

Semantic Change Semantic Change

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Table of contents

    What is semantic change?

    The term semantic change refers to how the meaning of words changes over time. We will cover five types of semantic change: narrowing, broadening, amelioration, pejoration, and semantic reclamation.

    Let's learn about the causes of semantic change, the different types of semantic change, and look at some examples.

    The term 'semantic shift' can also be used to refer to the changing meanings of words.

    The nature of semantic change

    It is important to remember that the nature of semantic change is a gradual process. The meaning of a word doesn't just change in an instant, it can take many years.

    Semantic change often occurs as societal values change. This means that different social or ethnic groups may experience semantic change differently for different words.

    Causes of semantic change

    There are two different causes of semantic change. These are extralinguistic causes (not involving language) and linguistic causes (involving language).

    Extralinguistic causes

    Extralinguistic causes in semantic change are mainly to do with the social or historical causes of semantic change. If we break the term 'extralinguistic' down we can see that it refers to factors that are 'extra' so exist outside the language itself. Linguist Andreas Blank breaks down this factor into three main subcategories.

    1. Psychological factors

    Psychological factors are factors that affect how people view a word and its meaning. If a word's original meaning is unclear, it is given new meaning. The meaning of a word may also become taboo or is used as a euphemism, eg. the term 'pass away' can be used to describe someone dying.

    2. Sociocultural factors

    This is perhaps the most common factor for extralinguistic causes of semantic change. Changes in the social, economical or political status of a country can have a significant impact on semantics. An example of this is how the meaning of words changed following the Industrial Revolution e.g. the meaning of the word 'engine' changed from describing general devices used in war to describing a specific mechanical device. This means that the word went the semantic change (more specifically narrowing).

    3. Cultural/encyclopaedic factors

    These factors refer to the cultural reasons why a word's meaning may change. This can be because of cultural changes that lead to a change in how the word is categorised (causing a semantic change). For example, the word 'cool' was originally used in the context of jazz music but as the popularity of jazz increased, the word became associated with anything trendy.

    Extralinguistic causes
    The fuzziness of a meaning
    Cultural importance changes
    Word becomes taboo
    Change in a word's popularity
    Communicative changes
    Changes in worldview

    Linguistic causes

    Linguistic causes of semantic change are factors that occur within the system of the language spoken. Natural language changes tend to take longer than extralinguistic causes. We see this throughout history, for example, Old English took centuries to develop into Middle English.

    Linguistic factors can include:


    Metonymy occurs when the name of an object is substituted for an attribute or adjective. For example, sometimes when discussing horse racing, the tracks are referred to as 'turf'.


    Metaphors may also affect what certain words are associated with. The meaning words may be extended to show a connection between two similar things.


    This occurs when two words are consistently used together in a sentence until they acquire the same meaning. For example, the verb 'to starve' originally meant 'to die'; however, it was frequently used in sentences about hunger. This led to the word's meaning to die of hunger.

    There are factors within these causes that will also impact semantic changes. Have a look at the table below to see some examples of extralinguistic and linguistic causes of semantic change.

    Linguistic causes
    Metonymy / metaphor
    Changes in the referents (what is being referred to)
    Excessive length
    Wordplay and puns
    Disguising language / misnomers (i.e. an inaccurate name)

    Different types of semantic change

    There are five major types of semantic change. These changes occur for either extralinguistic or linguistic reasons. The five major kinds of semantic change are: narrowing, broadening, amelioration, pejoration, and semantic reclamation.

    Below, we will discuss the characteristics of these, and look at examples of each type of semantic change.


    Semantic narrowing is the process by which a word's meaning becomes less generalised (in other words more specific) over time. This means that the new meaning derives directly from the original meaning. Typically this process is caused by linguistic factors, such as ellipses, and can take many years to occur. Narrowing can also be referred to as semantic specialisation or semantic restriction.

    Let's look at two examples of semantic narrowing:


    The word 'hound', traditionally was used to refer to any type of dog. However, over the centuries the meaning narrowed until it was only used when discussing dogs used when hunting (such as beagles and bloodhounds).

    Semantic Change hounds StudySmarterFig. 1 - An example of semantic narrowing is 'hound.'


    Similarly, 'meat', has also undergone semantic narrowing over the years. The word originally just meant 'food'. This meaning grew more specific until the word 'meat' was only used when relating to one type of food (animal flesh).


    Broadening is the process in which the meaning of a word becomes more generalised over time. In order words, the word can be used in more contexts than it could originally. This is sometimes referred to as semantic generalisation.

    Semantic broadening is the antonym of semantic narrowing, as the process that takes place is the opposite. However, like semantic narrowing, this process often occurs over the course of many years. Broadening can be caused by both extralinguistic and linguistic causes, such as a change in worldview, or linguistic analogy.

    Below are two examples of semantic broadening:


    The word, 'business' originally was only used to refer to being busy. However, over the years, the meaning of this word broadened to refer to any type of work or job.


    The term, 'cool', was popular within the language of jazz musicians, as it referred to a specific style of music ('cool jazz')! Over time, as jazz music grew in popularity, the word started to be used in other contexts.

    Semantic Change man playing jazz StudySmarterFig. 2 - An example of semantic broadening is 'Jazz.'


    Amelioration is a term that refers to when a word acquires a more positive meaning over time. It may also be referred to as semantic amelioration or semantic elevation. Typically this process occurs due to different extralinguistic reasons, such as cultural and worldview changes occurring.

    Below are two examples of amelioration:


    The word 'nice' is possibly the most well-known example of amelioration. In the 1300s, the word originally meant that a person was foolish or silly. However, by the 1800s, the process of amelioration had changed this, and the word came to mean that someone was kind and thoughtful. From this, we can see that amelioration is a process that can take centuries to occur.


    Many slang terms, such as 'sick', have undergone the process of amelioration over the years. Terms such as 'sick' or 'wicked' now also have positive connotations. This is because when used as slang, they gain a new, positive, meaning and are associated with the word, 'cool'.


    Pejoration is a term used to describe the process where a word that once had a positive meaning acquires a negative one. It is sometimes also referred to as semantic deterioration. This type of semantic change usually occurs due to extralinguistic causes. This can include a word becoming taboo, or being linked with a taboo within the culture.

    Below, we will look at two different examples of pejoration:


    The word, 'silly', is a common example of pejoration. In Old and Middle English, the term was used to mean that someone was happy, or spiritually blessed. However, over the centuries, this changed and by the 1500s, the word became associated with acting foolishly - as it is today!


    This word was originally used to refer to someone's pose or posture. The meaning of the word changed, referring to someone's way of thinking instead. From this, the term began to be used colloquially which led it to be associated with acting rude or unkind. A phrase such as 'he has a bad attitude' can become shortened to 'he has an attitude', showing that the word has gained a negative meaning.

    Semantic change: reclamation

    Semantic reclamation occurs when a group of people who have been oppressed reclaim (or take back) a word that has been used in the past to disparage them. The people who reclaim these words use them in a positive context and in doing this, the word is stripped of its power to disparage the group.

    Semantic reclamation is often a political and controversial act, as these words become special to one particular group. Words have been reclaimed by groups such as women, ethnic minorities and the LGBTQIA community.

    It is important to remember when discussing this form of semantic change that, unlike amelioration, the word may still also be used in the pejorative sense.

    Words that have undergone semantic change

    We've discussed examples of the different types of semantic change. However, here are a few more interesting examples that show the change of the English language over time!

    • Girl (narrowing)- originally referred to a child of either gender. The meaning narrowed to refer to a female child.
    • Playdough (broadening)- was originally the brand name. The meaning broadened to refer to the product as well.
    • Fun (amelioration)- originally had negative connotations meaning 'to cheat or trick'. The meaning now has positive connotations of amusement.
    • Stench (pejoration)- originally meant 'smell, odour, or fragrance'. The meaning now has negative connotations of a bad or unpleasant smell.

    Semantic Change - Key Takeaways

    • Semantic change refers to a type of language change in which the meaning of a word changes over time. Semantic change can be caused by extralinguistic and linguistic factors.
    • Narrowing is when a word's meaning becomes more specialised in time.
    • Broadening is when a word becomes more generalised and gains additional meanings.
    • Amelioration is when a word's meaning changes from negative to positive.
    • Pejoration is when a word's meaning changes from positive to negative.
    • Semantic reclamation is a process where a word that was once used to disparage a group of people is reclaimed by the group.
    Frequently Asked Questions about Semantic Change

    What are some examples of semantic change?

    There are many examples of semantic change that can be found in our day-to-day speech! One example of semantic change would be the word 'hound'. It was originally used to mean any dog, however, over time this word came to mean a hunting dog specifically. This is an example of narrowing.

    Another example of semantic change is the word 'nice'. This word was first used to describe someone foolish then changed to mean someone nice and selfless instead. This is an example of amelioration.

    What is semantic change?

    Semantic change is the process in which the meaning of a word changes over time.

    What are the four types of semantic change?

    There are four major types of semantic change. These include narrowing, broadening, amelioration, and pejoration.

    Narrowing is the process in which the meaning of a word becomes more specialised over time. Broadening is the opposite. It is the process in which a word's meaning becomes more generalised over time. 

    Amelioration is when a word's meaning changes from negative to positive over time. Pejoration is the opposite of this. It is the process in which the word's meaning changes from negative to positive over time.

    What is semantic change and how is it caused?

    The term 'semantic change' refers to how the meaning of words changes over time. This may be due to extralinguistic causes (social/historical causes) or linguistic causes (involving language).

    How many types of semantic changes are there?

    There are 5 main types of semantic change. These are: narrowing, broadening, amelioration, pejoration, and semantic reclamation.

    Test your knowledge with multiple choice flashcards

    How many major types of semantic change are there? 

    What are two examples of semantic narrowing?

    True or False - Meat is an example of semantic narrowing. 

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