Имя материала: Лексикология английского языка

Автор: Антрушина Галина Борисовна

Chapter 8 how words develop new meanings


It has been mentioned that the systems of meanings of polysemantic words evolve gradually. The older a word is, the better developed is its semantic structure. The normal pattern of a word's semantic development is from monosemy to a simple semantic structure encompassing only two or three meanings, with a further movement to an increasingly more complex semantic structure.

In this chapter we shall have a closer look at the complicated processes by which words acquire new meanings.

There are two aspects to this problem, which can be generally described in the following way: a) Why should new meanings appear at all? What circumstances cause and stimulate their development? b) How does it happen? What is the nature of the very process of development of new meanings?

Let us deal with each of these questions in turn.


Causes of Development of New Meanings


The first group of causes is traditionally termed historical or extra-linguistic.

Different kinds of changes in a nation's social life, in its culture, knowledge, technology, arts lead to gaps appearing in the vocabulary which beg to be filled. Newly created objects, new concepts and phenomena must be named. We already know of two ways for providing new names for newly created concepts:

making new words (word-building) and borrowing foreign ones. One more way of filling such vocabulary gaps is by applying some old word to a new object or notion.

When the first textile factories appeared in England, the old word mill was applied to these early industrial enterprises. In this way, mill (a Latin borrowing of the first century В. С.) added a new meaning to its former meaning "a building in which corn is ground into flour". The new meaning was "textile factory".

A similar case is the word carriage which had (and still has) the meaning "a vehicle drawn by horses", but, with the first appearance of railways in England, it received a new meaning, that of "a railway car".

The history of English nouns describing different parts of a theatre may also serve as a good illustration of how well-established words can be used to denote newly-created objects and phenomena. The words stalls, box, pit, circle had existed for a long time before the first theatres appeared in England. With their appearance, the gaps in the vocabulary were easily filled by these widely used words which, as a result, developed new meanings.1

New meanings can also be developed due to linguistic factors (the second group of causes).

Linguistically speaking, the development of new meanings, and also a complete change of meaning, may be caused through the influence of other words, mostly of synonyms.1

Let us consider the following examples.

The Old English verb steorfan meant "to perish". When the verb to die was borrowed from the Scandinavian, these two synonyms, which were very close in their meaning, collided, and, as a result, to starve gradually changed into its present meaning: "to die (or suffer) from hunger".

The history of the noun deer is essentially the same. In Old English (O. E. deor) it had a general meaning denoting any beast. In that meaning it collided with the borrowed word animal and changed its meaning to the modern one ("a certain kind of beast", R. олень).

The noun knave (O. E. knafa) suffered an even more striking change of meaning as a result of collision with its synonym boy. Now it has a pronounced negative evaluative connotation and means "swindler, scoundrel".


The Process of Development and Change of Meaning


The second question we must answer in this chapter is how new meanings develop. To find the answer to this question we must investigate the inner mechanism of this process, or at least its essential features. Let us examine the examples given above from a new angle, from within, so to speak.

Why was it that the word mill — and not some other word — was selected to denote the first textile factories? There must have been some connection between the former sense of mill and the new phenomenon to which it was applied. And there was apparently such a connection. Mills which produced flour, were mainly driven by water. The textile factories also firstly used water power. So, in general terms, the meanings of mill, both the old and the new one, could be defined as "an establishment using water power to produce certain goods". Thus, the first textile factories were easily associated with mills producing flour, and the new meaning of mill appeared due to this association. In actual fact, all cases of development or change of meaning are based on some association. In the history of the word carriage, the new travelling conveyance was also naturally associated in people's minds with the old one: horse-drawn vehicle > part of a railway train. Both these objects were related to the idea of travelling. The job of both, the horse-drawn carriage and the railway carriage, is the same: to carry passengers on a journey. So the association was logically well-founded.

Stalls and box formed their meanings in which they denoted parts of the theatre on the basis of a different type of association. The meaning of the word box "a small separate enclosure forming a part of the theatre" developed on the basis of its former meaning "a rectangular container used for packing or storing things". The two objects became associated in the speakers' minds because boxes in the earliest English theatres really resembled packing cases. They were enclosed on all sides and heavily curtained even on the side facing the audience so as to conceal the privileged spectators occupying them from curious or insolent stares.

The association on which the theatrical meaning of stalls was based is even more curious. The original meaning was "compartments in stables or sheds for the accommodation of animals (e. g. cows, horses, etc.)", There does not seem to be much in common between the privileged and expensive part of a theatre and stables intended for cows and horses, unless we take into consideration the fact that theatres in olden times greatly differed from what they are now. What is now known as the stalls was, at that time, standing space divided by barriers into sections so as to prevent the enthusiastic crowd from knocking one other down and hurting themselves. So, there must have been a certain outward resemblance between theatre stalls and cattle stalls. It is also possible that the word was first used humorously or satirically in this new sense.

The process of development of a new meaning (or a change of meaning) is traditionally termed transference.

Some scholars mistakenly use the term "transference of meaning" which is a serious mistake. It is very important to note that in any case of semantic change it is not the meaning but the word that is being transferred from one referent onto another (e. g. from a horse-drawn vehicle onto a railway car). The result of such a transference is the appearance of a new meaning.

Two types of transference are distinguishable depending on the two types of logical associations underlying the semantic process.


Transference Based on Resemblance (Similarity)


This type of transference is also referred to as linguistic metaphor. A new meaning appears as a result of associating two objects (phenomena, qualities, etc.) due to their outward similarity. Box and stall, as should be clear from the explanations above, are examples of this type of transference.

Other examples can be given in which transference is also based on the association of two physical objects. The noun eye, for instance, has for one of its meanings "hole in the end of a needle" (cf. with the R. ушко иголки), which also developed through transference based on resemblance. A similar case is represented by the neck of a bottle.

The noun drop (mostly in the plural form) has, in addition to its main meaning "a small particle of water or other liquid", the meanings: "ear-rings shaped as drops of water" (e. g. diamond drops) and "candy of the same shape" (e. g. mint drops). It is quite obvious that both these meanings are also based on resemblance. In the compound word snowdrop the meaning of the second constituent underwent the same shift of meaning (also, in bluebell). In general, metaphorical change of meaning is often observed in idiomatic compounds.

The main meaning of the noun branch is "limb or subdivision of a tree or bush". On the basis of this meaning it developed several more. One of them is "a special field of science or art" (as in a branch of linguistics). This meaning brings us into the sphere of the abstract, and shows that in transference based on resemblance an association may be built not only between two physical objects, but also between a concrete object and an abstract concept.

The noun bar from the original meaning barrier developed a figurative meaning realized in such contexts as social bars, colour bar, racial bar. Here, again, as in the abstract meaning of branch, a concrete object is associated with an abstract concept.

The noun star on the basis of the meaning "heavenly body" developed the meaning "famous actor or actress". Nowadays the meaning has considerably widened its range, and the word is applied not only to screen idols (as it was at first), but, also, to popular sportsmen (e. g. football stars), pop-singers, etc. Of course, the first use of the word star to denote a popular actor must have been humorous or ironical: the mental picture created by the use of the word in this new meaning was a kind of semi-god surrounded by the bright rays of his glory. Yet, very soon the ironical colouring was lost, and, furthermore the association with the original meaning considerably weakened and is gradually erased.

The meanings formed through this type of transference are frequently found in the informal strata of the vocabulary, especially in slang (see Ch. 1). A red-headed boy is almost certain to be nicknamed carrot or ginger by his schoolmates, and the one who is given to spying and sneaking gets the derogatory nickname of rat. Both these meanings are metaphorical, though, of course, the children using them are quite unconscious of this fact.

The slang meanings of words such as nut, onion (= head), saucers (= eyes), hoofs (= feet) and very many others were all formed by transference based on resemblance.


Transference Based on Contiguity


Another term for this type of transference is linguistic metonymy. The association is based upon subtle psychological links between different objects and phenomena, sometimes traced and identified with much difficulty. The two objects may be associated together because they often appear in common situations, and so the image of one is easily accompanied by the image of the other; or they may be associated on the principle of cause and effect, of common function, of some material and an object which is made of it, etc.

Let us consider some cases of transference based on contiguity. You will notice that they are of different kinds.

The Old English adjective glad meant "bright, shining" (it was applied to the sun, to gold and precious stones, to shining armour, etc.). The later (and more modern) meaning "joyful" developed on the basis of the usual association (which is reflected in most languages) of light with joy (cf. with the R. светлое настроение; светло на душе).

The meaning of the adjective sad in Old English was "satisfied with food" (cf. with the R. сыт(ый) which is a word of the same Indo-European root). Later this meaning developed a connotation of a greater intensity of quality and came to mean "oversatisfied with food; having eaten too much". Thus, the meaning of the adjective sad developed a negative evaluative connotation and now described not a happy state of satisfaction but, on the contrary, the physical unease and discomfort of a person who has had too much to eat. The next shift of meaning was to transform the description of physical discomfort into one of spiritual discontent because these two states often go together. It was from this prosaic source that the modern meaning of sad "melancholy", "sorrowful" developed, and the adjective describes now a purely emotional state. The two previous meanings ("satisfied with food" and "having eaten too much") were ousted from the semantic structure of the word long ago.

The foot of a bed is the place where the feet rest when one lies in the bed, but the foot of a mountain got its name by another association: the foot of a mountain is its lowest part, so that the association here is founded on common position.

By the arms of an arm-chair we mean the place where the arms lie when one is sitting in the chair, so that the type of association here is the same as in the foot of a bed. The leg of a bed (table, chair, etc.), though, is the part which serves as a support, the original meaning being "the leg of a man or animal". The association that lies behind this development of meaning is the common function: a piece of furniture is supported by its legs just as living beings are supported by theirs.

The meaning of the noun hand realized in the context hand of a clock (watch) originates from the main meaning of this noun "part of human body". It also developed due to the association of the common function:

the hand of a clock points to the figures on the face of the clock, and one of the functions of human hand is also that of pointing to things.

Another meaning of hand realized in such contexts as factory hands, farm hands is based on another kind of association: strong, skilful hands are the most important feature that is required of a person engaged in physical labour (cf. with the R. рабочие руки).

The adjective dull (see the scheme of its semantic structure in Ch. 7) developed its meaning "not clear or bright" (as in a dull green colour; dull light; dull shapes) on the basis of the former meaning "deficient in eyesight", and its meaning "not loud or distinct" (as in dull sounds) on the basis of the older meaning "deficient in hearing". The association here was obviously that of cause and effect: to a person with weak eyesight all colours appear pale, and all shapes blurred; to a person with deficient hearing all sounds are indistinct.

The main (and oldest registered) meaning of the noun board was "a flat and thin piece of wood; a wooden plank". On the basis of this meaning developed the meaning "table" which is now archaic. The association which underlay this semantic shift was that of the material and the object made from it: a wooden plank (or several planks) is an essential part of any table. This type of association is often found with nouns denoting clothes: e. g. a taffeta ("dress made of taffeta"); a mink ("mink coat"), a jersy ("knitted shirt or sweater").

Meanings produced through transference based on contiguity sometimes originate from geographical or proper names. China in the sense of "dishes made of porcelain" originated from the name of the country which was believed to be the birthplace of porcelain.

Tweed ("a coarse wool cloth") got its name from the river Tweed and cheviot (another kind of wool cloth) from the Cheviot hills in England.

The name of a painter is frequently transferred onto one of his pictures: a Matisse = a painting by Matisse.1


Broadening (or Generalization) of Meaning.

Narrowing (or Specialization) of Meaning


Sometimes, the process of transference may result in a considerable change in range of meaning. For instance, the verb to arrive (French borrowing) began its life in English in the narrow meaning "to come to shore, to land". In Modern English it has greatly widened its combinability and developed the general meaning "to come" (e. g. to arrive in a village, town, city, country, at a hotel, hostel, college, theatre, place, etc.). The meaning developed through transference based on contiguity (the concept of coming somewhere is the same for both meanings), but the range of the second meaning is much broader.

Another example of the broadening of meaning is pipe. Its earliest recorded meaning was "a musical wind instrument". Nowadays it can denote any hollow oblong cylindrical body (e. g. water pipes). This meaning developed through transference based on the similarity of shape (pipe as a musical instrument is also a hollow oblong cylindrical object) which finally led to a considerable broadening of the range of meaning.

The word bird changed its meaning from "the young of a bird" to its modern meaning through transference based on contiguity (the association is obvious). The second meaning is broader and more general.

It is interesting to trace the history of the word girl as an example of the changes in the range of meaning in the course of the semantic development of a word.

In Middle English it had the meaning of "a small child of either sex". Then the word underwent the process of transference based on contiguity and developed the meaning of "a small child of the female sex", so that the range of meaning was somewhat narrowed. In its further semantic development the word gradually broadened its range of meaning. At first it came to denote not only a female child but, also, a young unmarried woman, later, any young woman, and in modern colloquial English it is practically synonymous to the noun woman (e. g. The old girl must be at least seventy), so that its range of meaning is quite broad.

The history of the noun lady somewhat resembles that of girl. In Old English the word (hlxfdiZq)denoted the mistress of the house, i. e. any married woman. Later, a new meaning developed which was much narrower in range: "the wife or daughter of a baronet" (aristocratic title). In Modern English the word lady can be applied to any woman, so that its range of meaning is even broader than that of the O. E. hlxfdiZq. In Modern English the difference between girl and lady in the meaning of woman is that the first is used in colloquial style and sounds familiar whereas the second is more formal and polite. Here are some more examples of narrowing of meaning:


Deer: | any beast | > | a certain kind of beast |

Meat: | any food | > | a certain food product) |

Boy: | any young person of the male sex |  > | servant of the male sex |


It should be pointed out once more that in all these words the second meaning developed through transference based on contiguity, and that when we speak of them as examples of narrowing of meaning we simply imply that the range of the second meaning is more narrow than that of the original meaning.


The So-called "Degeneration" ("Degradation") and "Elevation" of Meaning


These terms are open to question because they seem to imply that meanings can become "better" or "worse" which is neither logical nor plausible. But, as a matter-of-fact, scholars using these terms do not actually mean the degeneration or elevation of meaning itself, but of the referent onto which a word is transferred, so that the term is inaccurate.

But let us try and see what really stands behind the examples of change of meaning which are traditionally given to illustrate degeneration and elevation of meaning.


I. "Degeneration" of meaning.



These examples show that the second meaning, in contrast with the one from which it developed, denotes a person of bad repute or character. Semantically speaking, the second meaning developed a negative evaluative connotation which was absent in the first meaning.

Such a readjustment in the connotative structure accompanying the process of transference can be sometimes observed in other parts of speech, and not only in nouns.


E. g. Silly: | happy | > | foolish |


II. "Elevation" of meaning.


Fond: | foolish] > | loving, affectionate |

Nice: | foolish] > | fine, good |


In these two cases the situation is reversed: the first meaning has a negative evaluative connotation, and the second meaning has not. It is difficult to see what is actually "elevated" here. Certainly, not the meaning of the word. Here are two more examples.


Tory: | brigand, highwayman | > | member of the Tories |

Knight: | manservant | > |"noble, courageous man]


In the case of Tory, the first meaning has a pronounced negative connotation which is absent in the second meaning. But why call it "elevation"? Semantically speaking, the first meaning is just as good as the second, and the difference lies only in the connotative structure.

The case of knight, if treated linguistically, is quite opposite to that of Tory: the second meaning acquired a positive evaluative connotation that was absent in the first meaning. So, here, once more, we are faced with a mere readjustment of the connotative components of the word.

There are also some traditional examples of "elevation" in which even this readjustment cannot be traced.



In these three words the second meaning developed due to the process of transference based on contiguity. Lord and lady are also examples of narrowing of meaning if we compare the range of the original and of the resultant meanings. No connotations of evaluation can be observed in either of the meanings. The fact that in all these three cases the original meaning denoted a humble ordinary person and the second denotes a person of high rank is absolutely extralinguistic.

All that has been said and the examples that have been given show that the terms "degradation" and "elevation" of meaning are imprecise and do not seem to be an objective reflection of the semantic phenomena they describe.

It would be more credible to state that some cases of transference based on contiguity may result in development or loss of evaluative connotations.




I. Consider your answers to the following.


1. What causes the development of new meanings? Give examples.

2. What is the basis of development or change of meaning? Explain what we mean by the term transference.

3. What types of transference can you name?

4. What is meant by the widening and the narrowing of meaning?

5. Give examples of the so-called "degradation" and "elevation" of meaning. Why are these terms imprecise?


II. Read the following extracts and explain the semantic processes by which the italicized words acquired their meanings


1. 'Bureau', a desk, was borrowed from French in the 17thc. In Modern French (and English) it means not only the desk but also the office itself and the authority exercised by the office. Hence the familiar bureaucracy is likely to become increasingly familiar. The desk was called so because covered with bureau, a thick coarse cloth of a brown russet.

(From The Romance of Words by E. Weekley)


2. An Earl of Spencer made a short overcoat fashionable for some time. An Earl of Sandwich invented a form of light refreshment which enabled him to take a meal without leaving the card-table. Hence we have such words as spencer and sandwich in English.

(From The Romance of Words by E. Weekley)


3. A common name for overalls or trousers is jeans. In the singular jean is also a term for a durable twilled cotton and is short for the phrase jean fustian which first appeared in texts from the sixteenth century. Fustian (a Latin borrowing) is a cotton or cotton and linen fabric, and jean is the modern spelling of Middle English Jene or Gene, from Genes, the Middle French j name of the Italian city Genoa, where it was made and shipped abroad.

(From The Merriam-Webster Book of Word Histories)


4. Formally barn meant "a storehouse for barley"; today it has widened to mean "any kind of storehouse" for animals or equipment as well as any kind of grain. | The word picture used to refer only to a representation ;:: made with paint; today it can be a photograph or a representation made with charcoal, pencil or any other ; means. A pen used to mean "feather" but now has become generalized to include several kinds of writing implements — fountain, ballpoint, etc. The meaning of sail as limited to moving on water in a ship with sails has now generalized to mean "moving on water in any ship".

(From Teaching English Linguistically by J. Malmstrom, J. Lee)


III. Read the following extract and criticize the author's treatment of the examples. Provide your own explanations.


Words degenerate in meaning also. In the past villain meant "farm labourer"; counterfeiter meant "imitator" without criminal connotations, and sly meant "skilful". A knave meant a "boy" and immoral meant "not customary", and hussy was a "housewife".

Other words improve in meanings. Governor meant "pilot" and constable meant "stable attendant". Other elevations are enthusiasm which formally meant "fanaticism", knight which used to mean "youth", angel which simply meant "messenger" and pretty which meant "sly". No one can predict the direction of change of meaning, but changes occur constantly.

(From Teaching English Linguistically by J. Malmstrom, J. Lee)


IV. Explain the logical associations in the following groups of meaning for the same words. Define the type of transference which has taken place.


1. The wing of a bird — the wing of a building; the eye of a man — the eye of a needle; the hand of a child — the hand of a clock; the heart of a man — the heart of the matter; the bridge across-the-river — the bridge of the nose; the tongue of a person — the tongue of a bell; the tooth of a boy — the tooth of a comb; the coat of a girl — the coat of a dog.

2. Green grass — green years; black shoes — black despair; nickel (metal) — a nickel (coin); glass — a glass; copper (metal) — a copper (coin); Ford (proper name) — a Ford (car); Damascus (town in Syria) — damask; Kashmir (town in North India) — cashmere.


V. Analyse the process of development of new meanings in the italicized words in the examples given below.


1.I put the letter well into the mouth of the box and let it go and it fell turning over and over like an autumn leaf. 2. Those v/ho had been the head of the line paused momentarily on entry and looked around curiously. 3. A cheerful-looking girl in blue jeans came up to the stairs whistling. 4. Seated behind a desk, he wore a light patterned suit, switch from his usual tweeds. 5. Oh, Steven, I read a Dickens the other day. It was awfully funny. 6. They sat on the rug before the fireplace, savouring its warmth, watching the rising tongues of flame. 7. He inspired universal confidence and had an iron nerve. 8. A very small boy in a green jersey with light red hair cut square across his forehead was peering at Steven between the electric fire and the side of the fireplace. 9. While the others were settling down, Lucy saw Pearson take another bite from his sandwich. 10. As I walked nonchalantly past Hugo's house on the other side they were already carrying out the Renoirs.


VI. Explain the basis for the following jokes. Trace the logical associations between the different meanings of the same word.


1. Father was explaining to his little son the fundamentals of astronomy.

"That's a comet."

"A what?"

"A comet. You know what a comet is?" "No."

"Don't you know what they call a star with a tail?"

"Sure — Mickey Mouse."


2. "Pa, what branches did you take when you went to school?"

"I never went to high school, son, but when I attended the little log school-house they used mostly hickory and beech and willow."


3. What has eyes yet never sees? (Potato)


4. H e (in telephone booth)'. I want a box for two.

Voice (at the other end): Sorry, but we don't have boxes for two.

He: But aren't you the box office of the theatre? Voice: No, we are the undertakers.


VII. In the examples given below identify the eases of widening and narrowing of meaning.


1. While the others waited the elderly executive filled his pipe and lit it. 2. Finn was watching the birds. 3. The two girls took hold of one another, one acting gentleman, the other lady; three or four more pairs of girls immediately joined them and began a waltz. 4. He was informed that the president had not arrived at the bank, but was on his way. 5. Smokey had followed a dictum all his life: If you want a woman to stick beside you, pick an ugly one. Ugly ones stay to slice the meat and stir the gravy.


VIII. Have the italicized words evaluative connotations in their meanings? Motivate your answer and comment on the history of the words.


1. The directors now assembling were admirals and field marshals of commerce. 2. For a businessman to be invited to serve on a top-flight bank board is roughly equivalent to being knighted by the British Queen. 3.1 had a nice newsy gossip with Mrs. Needham before you turned up last night. 4. The little half-starved guy looked more a victim than a. villain. 5. Meanwhile I nodded my head vigorously and directed a happy smile in the direction of the two ladies. 6.1 shook hands with Tom; it seemed silly not to, for I felt suddenly as though I were talking to a child.


IX. Read the following. Find examples of "degeneration" and "elevation" of meaning. Comment on the history of the words.


1. King Arthur invented Conferences because he was secretly a Weak King and liked to know what his memorable thousand and one knights wanted to do next. As they were all jealous knights he had to have the memorable Round Table made to have the Conferences at, so that it was impossible to say which was top knight.

(From 1066 and All That by C. W. Sellar, R. J. Yeatman)


2. Alf: Where are you going, Ted?

    Ted: Fishing at the old mill.

    Alf: But what about school?

    Ted: Don't be silly. There aren't any fish there!


X. Try your hand at the following scientific research. Write a short essay on the development of the meanings of three of the following words. Try to explain each shift of meaning. Use "The Shorter Oxford Dictionary" or "The Merriam-Webster Book of Word Histories".

Fee, cattle, school, pupil, nice, pen, gossip, coquette, biscuit, apron, merry, silly, doom, duke, pretty, yankee.


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