Contrary to popular belief, language isn’t static. It’s actually changing all the time! In particular, the vocabulary of a language changes continually over time in a process called semantic change. It happens thanks to a variety of factors, like cultural evolution, technological advancements, social change, and interactions between different languages and cultures. Today we’ll see what types of changes languages can undergo, and we’ll take a look at a few English words whose meanings have changed over time. So, how do words change over time? Let’s find out!

An old-fashioned black alarm clock on a wooden background. Text reads: Newsflash! Words evolve over time! It's called semantic change. MosaLingua

How Do Words Undergo Semantic Change?

Languages can experience lots of different types of semantic change. Learn about some of them below:

  1. Changes in the meanings of words

As society evolves and changes, the meaning of words can change too!

Some words can acquire new meanings, while others can fall out of use or even become obsolete. (Why did we stop using “to gorgonize” to mean “to charm”? Maybe it’s time to bring that one back…)

For example, the word “computer” used to refer to a person who did mathematical calculations. Now it’s pretty much only used to refer to the machine.

  1. Creation of new words

When new technologies, concepts, and phenomena arise, we often need to create new words to describe them. This can happen in a few ways, like blending, when two words combine to create one (stay + vacation → “staycation”), or clipping, when one or more words are shortened (web blog → “blog”).

Terms like “selfie,” “tweet,” and “emoji” are examples of words that we’ve created in the past few years thanks to the influences of social media and other new technology.

Check out this massive list of words (and new meanings) that were added to the Oxford English Dictionary in 2022 alone.

  1. Linguistic borrowing

Languages are in constant contact with one another, which means that they naturally borrow words from one another all the time. Eventually these borrowings just become a part of the original language.

For example, English has borrowed from lots of other languages, like French (“rendezvous”), Spanish (“siesta”), and Japanese (“karaoke”).

  1. Changes in pronunciation and phonetics

The pronunciation of words can also change over time. Regional, social, or even generational factors can influence pronunciation.

Here’s a quick example: in the 18th century, the words “dismay” and “dismiss” used to be pronounced with a “z” sound, but their pronunciation has evolved to use an “s” sound in current American English.

  1. Grammatical evolution

The grammatical structure of a language can also change over time.

For example, Old English was a highly inflected language, which means that the verbs were modified to an extreme degree to indicate things like gender, mood, tense, and more. But English evolved over time to become a weakly inflected language, which means that verbs don’t undergo much modification.

  1. Changes in vocabulary and idiomatic expressions

As societies change and develop, new words and idiomatic expressions are coined to keep up with these changes. For example, expressions like “to be online” or “hashtag” are common in many languages, reflecting the influence of the digital era.

These are only a few examples of how words and language can change over time. As they say, the only constant is change, and language is no exception!


10 Examples of Semantic Change in English

Now that we’ve learned about semantic change, let’s look at some English words that have changed meaning over time. Some of the original meanings of words might surprise you!

  1. Nowadays, we say awful when we want to indicate that something is extremely bad. But the word itself, “full of awe,” is a clue to its original meaning: it meant “inspiring wonder or fear.”
  2. Terrific. This is the opposite of what happened with “awful.” “Terrific” originally meant “full of terror,” but now we use it to refer to something as extremely good. Funny how that works!
  3. Back in the day, vegetarians would have also eaten meat, but that’s because it used to refer to any type of food at all, not just animal flesh. Gradually the meaning narrowed until we arrived at the current (and not vegetarian-friendly) definition.
  4. Nice used to mean “playful or silly,” but over time it has come to mean that someone is kind and thoughtful.
  5. Sick. Believe it or not, slang is an important part of language change! Although “sick” still retains its original meaning of being unwell, it has also shifted to mean cool when used in certain contexts. Sick, right?
  6. A hound used to refer to any dog, but now we use it to refer to a specific type of hunting dog. This is another great example of semantic narrowing, when a word becomes more specific than it once was.
  7. Nowadays, a myriad of something means any huge number of something, but back in Ancient Greece, it referred specifically to the number 10,000.
  8. This may not surprise you, but a spinster used to just mean “a woman who spun yarn or thread.” The meaning evolved to refer negatively to an unmarried woman.
  9. Dinner comes from the Latin disjejunare, meaning “break the fast,” and it used to refer to the first meal of the day! Now we use it to mean the main and last meal of the day (although in some dialects of American English, “dinner” still refers to a large midday meal, with “supper” meaning the last meal of the day).
  10. Fudge used to mean a last-minute lie or story, and it still retains that original meaning when we “fudge” the truth a bit. But now it also refers to a delicious type of chocolatey dessert (which is a much more fun definition!).

Did we miss any cool English words that used to mean something else? Tell us in the comments below.


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