Patterns of lexical change

We want to ask two questions in this section in relation to lexical change: in what ways do words change their meaning? how can the vocabulary of a language be expanded?


Meaning change

If we think about words like awful, terrific and wonderful, the morphology is still fairly transparent, and we can easily work out, from their morphology, that they must have meant ‘inspiring awe’, ‘causing terror’ and ‘leading to wonder’; we can just about only still use the word in these senses (although we might use the spelling awe-full to show this) but almost always, they would be used in the sense of ‘very bad’ for awful, ‘excellent’ for terrific and wonderful. Words change their meaning as a matter of course, and there is no way of stopping this.


There can be amelioration. This is when words improve, or are elevated, in meaning.  The word luxury originally meant ‘lasciviousness’ or ‘lust’. This then got watered down to refer to an indulgence in whatever is classy or expensive. Today, the strongly negative connotations are largely lost and we use it to mean something like ‘refined enjoyment’.


There can also be the opposite, pejoration, when words degrade in meaning. In the 15th to 18th centuries, silly meant ‘deserving of pity, compassion, or sympathy’. In the 16th century, the meaning ‘weak and feeble or insignificant’ as well as ‘unlearned, unsophisticated’ also began to develop. This of course led to today’s meaning ‘foolish’. If you know Danish and German, you might recognise the cognate words salig and selig. (Cognate words are related to each other in terms of derivation.) Not surprisingly, Danish and German have had the meanings developing separately: the Danish means something like happy for religious reasons (like blessedness) and the German can mean happy because of drunkenness!


Words can also undergo specialisation, when there is a narrowing of meaning. In the 1611 Bible (Authorised Version or King James Bible), we are told that God ‘formed euery beast of the field, and euery foule of the aire’ (Genesis 2.19). There the word foule (modern spelling: fowl) means ‘bird’. Today, we use it in a more restricted or specialised sense; a fowl is not any bird, but a particular kind of bird – the chicken; or, as the OED puts it, it is ‘a domestic cock or hen; a bird of the genus Gallus. In the US applied also to “a domestic duck or turkey” ’.


The opposite of that is generalisation, when there is a widening of meaning. The OED tells us that the word clerk had the original sense of  “man in a religious order, cleric, clergyman”. As the scholarship of the Middle Ages was practically limited to the clergy, and these performed all the writing, notarial and secretarial work of the time, the name “clerk” came to be equivalent to “scholar”, and specially applicable to a notary, secretary, recorder, accountant, or penman. The last has now come to be the ordinary sense, all the others being either archaic, historical, formal, or contextual.’ In American English, its use has extended further to include a shop or hotel worker.


There can also be a transfer of meaning when the meaning of a word shifts, so that the word refers to a different set of things, and this is usually through metaphorical extension. Think of the various senses of summit (peak; meeting), mouse (rodent; computer device) or bitch (female dog; spiteful woman).


Expansion of the lexicon

The earlier section discussed how items already in existence could change in meaning. We also know that lexical items can become moribund and obsolete, whilst new items are formed and join the lexicon. There can be many reasons for wanting to have new words.


Sometimes, when users sense that a particular word has acquired a meaning that is embarrassing in some way, a word is avoided and an alternative is found. Traditionally, a rubber was used to rub off pencil marks; when the meaning ‘condom’ became widespread, users began to replace the name of the rubbing device with another word eraser. Similarly, people began calling the male chicken a rooster or cockerel rather than a cock because the latter could be used to refer to the penis. Most Americans use the spelling tidbit rather than titbit so that the word does not resemble tits in any way. And of course, donkey is used in favour of ass because of the meaning ‘buttocks’ now prevalent.


Clearly, there are also new developments in terms of experience. The popularisation of computers also saw the rise of a new set of vocabulary items. Clearly, the use of transfer is evident in terms like virus, infection and mouse. But we also have coinages like Pentium or CD-rom.



In some occasions, the idea to be named already exists in other cultures by speakers of other languages. The easiest way of appropriating the idea so that it can be discussed in English is to borrow the word, and the word is then a loan-word in English. (The term, if you think about it, is a little strange, because the word is almost always never returned to the source language.) Some language communities try to discourage borrowing, including Iceland and France; whilst others are much less concerned about this.


As mentioned in our discussion concerning the etymological principle, the tendency for English is to, at least initially, borrow items and reproduce the original spelling if the source language employs the Latin alphabet and to approximate the pronunciation of the item in the source language. However, through time, the item might undergo the process of nativisation or naturalisation or anglicisation (in the case of English).


Consider the case of tea. The OED tells us that ‘the form te (thé) was brought into Europe by the Dutch, prob. from the Malay at Bantam (if not from Formosa, where the Fuhkien or Amoy form was used). The original English pronunciation (te;), sometimes indicated by spelling tay, is found in rimes down to 1762, and remains in many dialects; but the current (ti;) is found already in the 17th c., shown in rimes and by the spelling tee.’


The ultimate source is therefore Hokkien, but it came into English through Dutch (today the Dutch spelling is thee). The etymological principle is not relevant because Hokkien isn’t generally written in the Latin alphabet. The original pronunciation /te;/ is very close to the Hokkien pronunciation. Following the Great Vowel Shift, the pronunciation today has shifted to /ti;/.


The item banana is borrowed from Portuguese or Spanish, and the spelling reflects the Portuguese or Spanish spelling (following the etymological principle). However, the pronunciation is anglicised, so that the first and third syllables, being unstressed, have their vowels neutralised to a schwa sound, and in RP the stressed vowel is lengthened, hence /b@"nA;n@/.


On some occasions, a range of pronunciations is available, as in the case of the French loan-word garage. The French pronunciation is /ga"raZ/. In British English, a completely nativised pronunciation /"garIdZ/ (with the stress moved to the first syllable and the vowel in the unstressed vowel neutralised); the following are also available /"garA;Z/ or /g@"rA;Z/.



One of the easiest ways of forming new words is putting two (or more) old words together. A compound is a lexeme which is made up of two (or more) other lexemes. Compounds in English are not always written in a consistent fashion, for example south-east can be written with a hyphen, or with a space (south east) or fused (southeast).


If we look at two-word compounds, the relationship between the two lexemes A and B can be quite diverse. Here are some examples.

Meaning relationship



heat rash


flu virus


measles jab


spaghetti junction, button mushroom


nappy rash, earache, wall clock


night bird, night cap, spring onion




bookcase, car park, bus bay, picture frame


potato pancake, currant bun, chicken soup


pancake, oven chips




toilet seat


And this list is not exhaustive. Compounds are therefore potentially ambiguous on the first encounter. All the examples are of two-word compounds of the type NOUN + NOUN. There are of course other kinds of compounds as well.


Affixation and derivatives

Another way of forming new words is by affixation, for example quantifiable is formed from quant(ity) + ify + able. These new words are known as derivatives. Some affixes are more productive than others, such as the negative affixes non-, dis- and un-. These leave the word class of the new lexemes unchanged.


Some change nouns into verbs, such as -ify, -ise, -ate (solidify, characterise, substantiate). Others change adjectives into verbs, such as the prefixes en- and in- (enable, encourage, inflame), and the suffix -en (lighten, straighten).


There are suffixes for forming nouns from verbs, such as -ation, -ment, ­-ence (inflammation, appointment, severence) as well as those for forming nouns from adjectives, such as -ity, -ness (opacity, tiredness), and indeed nouns from other nouns, such as -ism (communism). These new nouns are known as nominalisations, and have received some attention from some linguists because they are known to play an important role in academic writing.


Many people find it helpful to show the affixation in an inverted tree diagram, as below.

The inverted tree diagram shows that reputation (noun) is derived from repute (verb) + -ation. The word immeasurably (adverb) is derived from immeasurable (adjective) + -ly; immeasurable itself is derived from in- (negative) + measurable; measurable itself is derived from measure (verb) + -able. The base forms or roots of both words are repute and measure. (The root is that part of the word left when all affixes are removed.)


A. What is lexicology?

B. How can lexis be organised?

D. The sources of English words

E. Vocabulary across text types



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