Language Change: Semantics Key Terminology

A2 English Language: Language Change

Semantic change terminology and examples

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  • Created by: Emma
  • Created on: 15-06-11 15:44

Semantic broadening (also known as generalisation) 

When the meaning of a word broadens, retaining the old meaning but taking on a new meaning.

Example: 'holiday' originally meant 'holy day' broadened to mean any day off work

Semantic narrowing

Opposite of broadening

Example: 'meat' originally meant all solid food, but now refers to the flesh of any animal

Example: 'girl' originally used for all young people regardless of sex

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A change when the meaning of a word becomes more positive

Example: 'pretty' once meant 'sly'/'cunning' but now means 'attractive'

Example: 'wicked' now means 'cool'

Example: 'naughty' from Middle English 'nauht' (meaning worthless), used to mean 'immediately' now means 'sometime in the near future'

Example: 'brave' used to mean 'uncivilised'

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When the definition of a word becomes less favourable

Example: 'cowboy' now means someone who does not do a good job

Example: 'impertinent' (which used to mean 'irrelevant') now means 'inappropriate'/'rude'

Example: 'gay' meant happy but now means 'homosexual'

Example: 'juvenile' was more associated with youth, nowadays connected to deviancy and immaturity

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When the force of the original meaning is weakened

Example: 'soon' used to mean 'immediately', now means 'sometime in the near future'


Words sometimes acquire new meanings when used metaphorically

Example: 'onion bag' is now used to denote a football net

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Expressions/sayings comprised of existing words and often have a metaphorical base


'in the doghouse'

'wake up and smell the coffee'

'rise and shine'

'spill the beans'

'don't let the bed bugs bite'

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A mild in-offensive way of describing something distasteful or unpleasant


'surgical strike'

'powdering your nose'

'at peace'

'having a moment'

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Making an expression sound more unpleasant

Example: 'kicked the bucket'


No longer having any use


A process of linguistic change over a period of time

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An old word or phrase no longer in general of written use

Term derives from Greek 'arkhaios' meaning ancient



'habited' (dressed)

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Political correctness

Drive to replace words and expressions that are considered to be offensive or demeaning to disadvantaged members of society

1980s movement


'people with learning difficulties'

'mixed race'

'actor' (non gender-specific)

'fire officer'

The word 'golliwog' coined by Bertha Upton for a series of children's books at the end of the last century is now so negatively connotated that it is rarely seen.

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