Semantic Changes

"Specialization" and "generalization" are thus identified on the evid-' ence of comparing logical notions expressed by the meaning of words.

Semantic Changes



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parts of the body are made to express a variety of meanings may be illustrated by the following: head of an army, of a procession, of a household; arms and mouth of a' river, eye of a needle, foot of a hill, tongue of a bell and so on and so forth. The transferred meaning is easily recognized from the context: ... her feet were in low-heeled brown brogues with fringed tongues. (PLOMER>

Numerous cases of metaphoric transfer are based upon the analogy between duration of time and space, e.g. long distance:: long- speech; a short path :: a short time. The transfer of space relations upon psychological and mental notions may be exemplified by words and expressions concerned with understanding: to catch (to grasp) an idea; to take a hint; , to get the hang of; to throw light upon.

This metaphoric change from the concrete to the abstract is also represented in such simple words as score, span, thrill. Score comes from OE scoru 'twenty' from ON skor 'twenty' and also 'notch'. In OE time notches were cut on sticks to keep a reckoning. As score is cognate with shear, it is very probable that the meaning developed from the twentieth notch that was made of a larger size. From the meaning 'line' or 'notch cut or scratched down' many new meanings sprang out, such as 'number of points made by a player or a side in some games', 'running account', 'a debt', 'written or printed music', etc. Span from OE spann 'maximum distance between the tips of thumb and little finger used as a measure of length', came to mean 'full extent from end to end' (of a bridge, an arch, etc.) and 'a short distance'. Thrill from ME thriven 'to pierce' developed into the present meaning 'to penetrate with emotion'.

Another subgroup of metaphors comprises transitions of proper names into common ones: an Adonis, a Cicero, a Don Juan, etc. When a proper name like Falstaff is used referring specifically to the hero of Shakespeare's plays it has a unique reference. But when people speak of a person they know calling him Falstaff they make a proper name generic for a corpulent, jovial, irrepressibly impudent person and it no longer denotes a unique being. Cf. Don Juan as used about attractive profligates. To certain races and nationalities traditional characteristics have been attached by the popular mind with or without real justification. If a person is an out-and-out mercenary and a hypocrite into the bargain they call him a Philistine, ruthlessly destructive people are called Vandals.


If the transfer is based upon the association of contiguity it is called metonymy. It is a shift of names between things that are known to be in some way or other connected in reality. The transfer may be conditioned by spatial, temporal, causal, symbolic, instrumental, functional and other relations.

Thus, the word book is derived from the name of a tree on which inscriptions were scratched: ModE book < OE boc 'beech'. ModE win <. OE winnan 'to fight'; the word has been shifted so as to apply to the success following fighting. Cash is an adaptation of the French word caisse 'box'; from naming the container it came to mean what was contained, i.e. money; the original meaning was lost in competition with the new word safe. Spatial relations are also present when the name of the place is used for the people occupying it. The chair may mean 'the chairman', the bar 'the lawyers', the pulpit 'the priests'. The word town may denote the inhabitants of a town and the word house the members of the House of Commons or of Lords. Cello, violin, saxophone are often used to denote not the instruments but the musicians who play them.

A causal relationship is obvious in the following development: ModE fear < ME feere < OE fær, fēr 'danger', 'unexpected attack'. States and properties serve as names for objects and people possessing them: youth, age, authorities, forces. The name of the action can serve to name the result of the action: ModE kill < ME killen 'to hit on the head', ModE stay || Germ schlagen.. Emotions may be named by the movements that accompany them: to frown, to start.

There are also the well-known instances of symbol for thing symbolized: the crown for 'monarchy'; the instrument for the product: 'hand 'handwriting'; receptacle for content, as in the word kettle, and some others. Words for the material from which an article is made are often used to denote the particular article: glass, iron, copper, nickel are well known examples. The pars pro toto where the name of a part is applied to the whole may be illustrated by such military terms as the royal horse for 'cavalry' and foot for 'infantry', and the expressions like / want to have a word with you. The reverse process is observed when OE cēol 'a ship' develops among other variants into keel 'a barge load of coal'.

A place of its own within metonymical change is occupied by the so-called functional change. The type has its peculiarities: in this case the shift is between names of things substituting one another in human practice. Thus, the early instrument for writing was a feather or more exactly a quill (OE pen, from OFr penne, from It penna, from Lat. penna 'feather'). We write with fountain-pens that are made of different materials and have nothing in common with feathers except the function, but the name remains. The name rudder comes from OE roper 'oar' || Germ Ruder 'oar'. The shift of meaning is due to the shift of function: the steering was formerly achieved by an oar. The steersman was called pilot; with the coming of aviation one who operates the flying controls of an aircraft was also called pilot. For more cases of functional change see also the semantic history of the words: filter, pocket, spoon, stamp, sail.

Common names may be derived from proper names also metonymically, as in macadam and diesel, so named after their inventors.

Many physical and technical units are named after great scientists: volt, ohm, ampere, watt, etc.

There are also many instances in political vocabulary when the place of some establishment is used not only for the establishment itself or its staff but also for its policy: the White House, the Pentagon, Wall Street, Downing Street, Fleet Street.

Examples of geographic names turning into common nouns to name the goods exported or originating there are exceedingly numerous, e.g.

astrakhan, bikini, boston, cardigan, china, tweed.

Garments came to be known by the names of those who brought them into fashion: mackintosh, raglan, wellingtons.




4. Other types of semantic changes.


Following the lead of literary criticism linguists have often adopted terms of rhetoric for other types of semantic change, besides metaphor and metonymy. These are: hyperbole, litotes, irony, e u p h e m i s m. In all these cases the same warning that was given in connection with metaphors and metonymy must be kept in mind: namely, there is a difference between these terms as understood in literary criticism and in lexicology. Hyperbole (from Gr huperballō 'exceed') is an exaggerated statement not meant to be understood literally but expressing an intensely emotional attitude of the speaker to what he is speaking about. The emotional tone is due to the illogical character in which the direct denotative and the contextual emotional meanings are combined.

A very good example is chosen by I. R. Galperin from Byron, and one cannot help borrowing it:

When people say "I've told you fifty times," They mean to scold and very often do,

The reader will note that Byron's intonation is distinctly colloquial, the poet is giving us his observations concerning colloquial expressions, So the .hyperbole here is not poetic but linguistic.

The same may be said about expressions like: It's absolutely maddening, You'll be the death of me, I hate troubling you, It's monstrous, It's a nightmare, A thousand pardons, A thousand thanks, Haven't seen you for ages, I'd give the world to, I shall be eternally grateful, I'd love to do it, etc.

The most important difference between a poetic hyperbole and a linguistic one lies in the fact that the former creates an image, whereas in the latter the denotative meaning quickly fades out and the corresponding exaggerating words serve only as general signs of emotion without specifying the emotion itself. Some of the most frequent emphatic words are: absolutely! awfully! terribly! lovely! magnificent! splendid! and so on.

The reverse figure is called litotes (from Gr lītos 'plain', 'meagre') or understatement. It. might be defined as expressing the affirmative by the negation of its contrary: e.g. not bad or not half bad for 'good', not small for 'great', no coward for 'brave'. Some understatements do not contain negations: rather decent; I could do with a cup of tea. It i

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