Monday, May 23, 2016

Semantic Change - Broadening - Part 2

Words constantly change meaning. It's something inevitable that happens due to usage. This process is called semantic change or shift in meaning. I posted a general explanation about this previously, and now I'm going to focus on one of the ways a word can change its meaning: broadening.

Broadening is basically a process in which a word used to refer to something specific goes on to refer to something more general. Its meaning broadens, widens, becomes more general.

In my previous post on semantic broadening, I used several brand names as examples. Names such as Kleenex or Velcro are commonly used nowadays not to refer to the specific brand, but to refer to the general object. Other words such as "escalator" or "aspirin", previously brand names, lost their trademarked status and became part of the public domain. This is yet another example of semantic broadening, and in the case of brands, "genericide."

Here are some other examples of broadening:


Procession of a guy.
This word nowadays refers to any male person. It originates from Guido (Guy) Fawkes, the most famous of a group of conspirators who attempted to blow up the English Houses of Parliament on November 5, 1605. This was known as the Gunpowder Plot. You might recall a little rhyme from the movie V for Vendetta mentioning this.

After Fawkes's trial and execution, Londoners began celebrating the thwarted plot each November 5 with bonfires, fireworks, and the burning of an effigy, which was called a guy (but usually represented the Pope).

During the 19th century, the word "guy" was used to refer to any oddly dressed person. In America, the word lost its pejorative connotation and came to mean any man, and that's the use we give the word today.

Ezio Auditore is the most
charismatic assassin ever!

The origin of this word is as twisted as you would expect! It seems that in the eleventh and twelfth centuries there was a secretive murder cult which received the name "hashishin" meaning "hashish eaters."

This cult targeted prominent figures and also took money from contract killings. Even though their main goal was to coerce or murder, the group wasn't as bloodthirsty as you'd think. They were highly intelligent and trained killers, known for only inflicting harm on their target. They specifically took care not to harm bystanders or any innocent people who might be nearby.

Because of their assaults were focused on prominent figures, the words "assassin" and "assassinate" nowadays refer to killings of a major public figure. If an ordinary everyday person is killed, that is murder, not assassination.


The Old English word "docga" (or "dogga") is still a linguistic mystery. At the time, the word "docga" was used to refer to a specific breed of canine, but once it entered the language it gained popularity to the point that it forced out the Old English "hund" (which gave us today's "hound") and went on to mean any sort of dog disregarding its breed.


Is there a more general word than "thing"? Well, in Old English (it was "Ă¾ing") the word referred to a council, meeting, assembly or discussion. It's incredible how generalized this word has become and how forgotten its origins are!


Oops! Sorry for cursing! No, not really. I honestly don't have any taboos when it comes to language because the word itself isn't inherently right or wrong; its the connotations we humans give it. So, let's talk about shit.

Originally, the word referred to fecal matter, and it still does today. However, its sense has been broadened. Have you ever heard phrases such as:

"I've had enough of her shit."
"I have so much shit to to today."

I'm sure most of you must have. In the first example, the word "shit" might refer to "problems" or "issues" or "drama" or "complaints." It's very general! In the second example, "shit" is also immensely general, meaning "things."

What's happening to the word "shit"? It's undergoing a process of generalization or broadening, but it's also on the verge of losing any meaning! When a word becomes so, so general, it risks losing its full meaning and becoming nothing more than a function word (used to express grammatical or structural relationships in a sentence) or an affix (a word element: prefix, suffix...). This process is called bleaching.


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