HQ Magazine

Semantic Change: How Words Evolve Over Time

The development of languages can lead to a change in meaning of words, and in historical linguistics, this phenomenon is known as semantic change. The meaning of a word can either be slightly altered, or it can evolve greatly.  While this can cause confusion and misunderstanding, it is also seen as a positive step forward in the growth and adaptation of languages. In a modern world where businesses thrive on effective communication and creative marketing campaigns, it is important to have not only clarity of message, but also an understanding of how others interpret words.

bully

Semantic change can be influenced by a variety of factors, including culture, other languages, as well as the advancement of science and technology. For the most part, there is some predictability in how words change over time, with them usually expanding in meaning. Some words, however, become pejorative, coming to denote something worse. In the 16th century, for example, referring to someone as a “bully” would have been the equivalent of calling them “darling” or “sweetheart.” This is thought to stem from the word “boel,” a Dutch word meaning lover or brother. However, by the 17th century the meaning of the word deteriorated, shifting drastically from “fine fellow” to “blusterer” until finally stopping at the meaning that is closest to us now: harasser of the weak.

On the contrary, the word “nice,” derived from Latin nescius meaning ignorant, began life in the 14th century as a term for “silly.” From there it embraced many negative qualities, such as wantonness, extravagance, and cowardice. It is not until the Middle Ages that the word took on the attributes of shyness and reserve. The 18th century and its fascination with admirable qualities is what brought on the more positively charged meanings of “nice,”  with the values of respectability and virtue taking over. These positive associations remain until today, with the word usually being used as a synonym of “pleasant.”

Related:  Honoring the Silk Road — An ever-lasting symbol of Chinese Globalization

Some words have even disappeared completely from daily usage, confirming the notion that language is fluid and ever changing.  But the irregularity of semantic change is what makes linguistics so fascinating. The definition and meaning behind words have no set rules or guidelines, and are completely at the discretion of society. As anthropologist-linguist Edward Sapir once said, “Language is the most massive and inclusive art we know, a mountainous and anonymous work of unconscious generations.”

This article was published in the 2014 edition of HQ magazine, a publication of CSOFT International. If you’re interested in learning more about CSOFT’s globalization and localization solutions, don’t forget to subscribe to our RSS feed for automatic updates from Simply CSOFT!

Share this content:

CSOFT International is a translation, localization, and globalization services provider that helps international businesses reach out to customers around the world.