AskDefine | Define pejoration

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From peior


  1. The act or process of becoming worse; worsening or degeneration
  2. The process by which a word acquires a more negative meaning over time


Extensive Definition

In diachronic (or historical) linguistics, semantic change is a change in one of the meanings of a word. Every word has a variety of senses and connotations which can be added, removed, or altered over time, often to the extent that cognates across space and time have very different meanings. Semantic change is one of three major processes to find a designation for a concept. The study of semantic change can be seen as part of etymology, onomasiology, semasiology and semantics.
An example of a recent semantic change is of the word mouse; with the advent of computer technology, the word for the rodent has been used as a referent for the input device.

Types of semantic change

A number of classification schemes have been suggested for semantic change. The most widely accepted scheme in the English-speaking academic world is from Leonard Bloomfield (1933):
  • Narrowing: Change from superordinate level to subordinate level, e.g., meat "food" → "flesh of an animal"
  • Widening: Change from subordinate level to superordinate level, e.g., bird "nestling, young bird" → "bird"
  • Metaphor: Change based on similarity of thing, e.g., bitter "biting" → "not sweet"
  • Metonymy: Change based on nearness in space or time, e.g., jaw "cheek" → "jaw"
  • Synecdoche: Change based on whole-part relation, e.g., town "fence" → "city"
  • Hyperbole: Change from stronger to weaker meaning, e.g., astound "strike with thunder" → "surprise strongly"
  • Litotes: Change from weaker to stronger meaning, e.g., kill "torment" → "kill"
  • Degeneration: e.g., knave "boy" → "servant"
  • Elevation: e.g., knight "boy" → "knight"
However, Andreas Blank"s (1998) categorization has been gaining more and more acceptance:
  • Metaphor: Change based on similarity between concepts, e.g., mouse "rodent" → "computer device"
  • Metonymy: Change based on contiguity between concepts, e.g., horn "animal horn" → "musical instrument"
  • synecdoche: same as above
  • specialization of meaning: Downward shift in a taxonomy, e.g., corn "corn" → "wheat" (UK)
  • generalization of meaning; Upward shift in a taxonomy, e.g., hoover "Hoover vacuum cleaner" → "any type of vacuum cleaner"
  • cohyponymic transfer: Horizontal shift in a taxonomy, e.g., the confusion of mouse and rat in some dialects
  • antiphrasis: Change based on a contrastive aspect of the concepts, e.g., perfect lady in the sense of "prostitute"
  • auto-antonymy: Change of a word's sense and concept to the complementary opposite, e.g., bad in the slang sense of "good"
  • auto-converse: Lexical expression of a relationship by the two extremes of the respective relationship, e.g., take in the dialectal use as "give"
  • ellipsis: Semantic change based on the contiguity of names, e.g., car "cart" → "automobile", due the to invention of the (motor) car
  • folk-etymology: Semantic change based on the similarity of names, e.g., French contredanse, orig. English country dance)
Blank considers it problematic, though, to include amelioration and pejoration of meaning as well as strengthening and weakening of meaning. According to Blank, these are not objectively classifiable phenomena; moreover, all Blank has shown that all of the examples listed under these headings can be grouped into the other phenomena.

Forces triggering semantic change

Blank (1997, 1999a) has tried to set up a complete list of motives of semantic change. This list has been revised and slightly enlarged by Grzega (2004). They can be summarized as:
  • linguistic forces
  • psychological forces
  • sociocultural forces
  • cultural/encyclopedic forces

Practical studies

Apart from many individual studies, etymological dictionaries are prominent reference books for finding out about semantic changes. The internet platform Onomasiology Online shows a bibliography of etymological dictionaries of languages world-wide.

Theoretical studies

Recent overviews have been presented by Blank (1997:7-46) and Blank/Koch (1999b). Semantic change had attracted academic discussions already in ancient times. The first major works of modern times are Karl Reisig (1829/1839), Arsène Darmesteter (1887), Michel Bréal (1899), Hermann Paul (1880), Gustaf Stern (1931), Leonard Bloomfield (1933) and Stephen Ullmann (1957 & 1962). Studies beyond the analysis of single words have been started with Jost Trier's word-field analyses (1931), who claimed that every semantic change of a word would also affect all other words in a lexical field. His approach was later refined by Eugenio Coseriu (1964). Generative semantics has been introduced by Gerd Fritz (1964). More recent works including pragmatic and cognitive theories are those by Beatrice Warren (1992), Dirk Geeraerts (1983, 1997), Elizabeth Traugott (e.g., 1990) and Andreas Blank (1997).
As stated above, the most currently used typologies are those by Bloomfield (1933) and Blank (1998) shown above. Other typologies are listed below.

Typology by Reisig (1839)

Reisig's ideas for a classification were published posthumously. He resorts to classical rhetorics and distinguishes between
  • synecdoche: shifts between part and whole
  • metonymy: shifts between cause and effect
  • metaphor

Typology by Paul (1880)

  • specialization: enlargement of single senses of a word's meaning
  • specialization on a specific part of the contents: reduction of single senses of a word's meaning
  • transfer on a notion linked to the based notion in a spatial, temporal or causal way

Typology by Darmesteter (1887)

  • metaphor
  • metonymy
  • widening of meaning
  • narrowing of meaning
The last two are defined as change between whole and part, which would today be rendered as synecdoche.

Typology by Bréal (1899)

  • restriction of sense: change from a general to a special meaning
  • enlargement of sense: change from a special to a general meaning
  • metaphor
  • "thickening" of sense: change from an abstract to a concrete meaning

Typology by Stern (1931)

  • Substitution: Change related to the change of an object, of the knowledge referring to the object, of the attitude toward the object, e.g., artillery "engines of war used to throw missiles" → "mounted guns", atom "inseparable smallest physical-chemical element" → "physical-chemical element consisting of electrons", scholasticism "philosophical system of the Middle Ages" → "servile adherence to the methods and teaching of schools"
  • Analogy: Change triggered by the change of an associated word, e.g., fast adj. "fixed and rapid" ← faste adv. "fixedly, rapidly")
  • Shortening: e.g., periodical ← periodical paper
  • Nomination: "the intentional naming of a referent, new or old, with a name that has not previously been used for it" (Stern 1931: 282), e.g., lion "brave man" ← "lion"
  • Regular transfer: a subconscious Nomination
  • Permutation: non-intentional shift of one referent to another due to a reinterpretation of a situation, e.g., bead "prayer" → "pearl in a rosary") *Adequation: Change in the attitude of a concept, which makes the distinction from Substitution unclear).
This classification does not neatly distinguish between processes and forces/causes of semantic change.

Typology by Ullmann (1957, 1962)

Ullmann dintinguishes between nature and consequences of semantic change:
  • nature of semantic change
    • Metaphor: change based on a similarity of senses
    • Metonymy: change based on a contiguity of senses
    • Folk-etymology: change based on a similarity of names
    • Ellipsis: change based on a conitguity of names
  • Consequences of semantic change
    • Widening of meaning: raise of quantity
    • Narrowing of meaning: loss of quantity
    • Amelioration of meaning: raise of quality
    • Pejoration of meaning: loss of quality



  • Blank, Andreas (1997), Prinzipien des lexikalischen Bedeutungswandels am Beispiel der romanischen Sprachen, [Beihefte zur Zeitschrift für romanische Philologie 285], Tübingen: Niemeyer.
  • Blank, Andreas (1999a), "Why Do New Meanings Occur? A Cognitive Typology of the Motivations for Lexical Semantic Change", in: Blank/Koch 1999a: 61-90.
  • Blank, Andreas / Koch, Peter (eds.) (1999a), Historical Semantics and Cognition, [Cognitive Linguistics Research 13], Berlin/New York: Mouton de Gruyter.
  • Blank, Andreas / Koch, Peter (1999b), "Introduction: Historical Semantics and Cognition", in: Blank/Koch 1999a: 1-16.
  • Bloomfield, Leonard (1933), Language, New York: Allen & Unwin.
  • Bréal, Michel (1899), Essai de sémantique, 2nd ed., Paris: Hachette.
  • Coseriu, Eugenio (1964), "Pour une sémantique diachronique structurale", Travaux de Linguistique et de Littérature 2: 139-186.
  • Darmesteter, Arsène (1887), La vie des mots, Paris: Delagrave.
  • Fritz, Gerd (1974), Bedeutungswandel im Deutschen, Tübingen: Niemeyer.
  • Geeraerts, Dirk (1983), "Reclassifying Semantic Change", Quaderni di semantica 4: 217-240.
  • Geeraerts, Dirk (1997), Diachronic Prototype Semantics: A Contribution to Historical Lexicology, Oxford: Clarendon.
  • Grzega, Joachim (2000), "Historical Semantics in the Light of Cognitive Linguistics: Aspects of a New Reference Book Reviewed", Arbeiten aus Anglistik und Amerikanistik 25: 233-244.
  • Grzega, Joachim (2004), Bezeichnungswandel: Wie, Warum, Wozu? Ein Beitrag zur englischen und allgemeinen Onomasiologie, Heidelberg: Winter. (reviewed by Bernhard Kelle in Zeitschrift für Dialektologie und Linguistik 2006)
  • Grzega, Joachim / Schöner, Marion (2007), English and General Historical Lexicology: Materials for Onomasiology Seminars, Eichstätt: Universität.
  • Koch, Peter (2002), "Lexical Typology from a Cognitive and Linguistic Point of View", in: Cruse, D. Alan et al. (eds.), Lexicology: An International Handbook on the Nature and Structure of Words and Vocabularies / Lexikologie: Ein internationales Handbuch zur Natur und Struktur von Wörtern und Wortschätzen, [Handbücher zur Sprach- und Kommunikationswissenschaft 21], Berlin/New York: Walter de Gruyter, vol. 1, 1142-1178.
  • Paul, Hermann (1880), Prinzipien der Sprachgeschichte, Tübingen: Niemeyer.
  • Reisig, Karl (1829/1839), "Semasiologie oder Bedeutungslehre", in: Haase, Friedrich (ed.) (1839), Professor Karl Reisigs Vorlesungen über lateinische Sprachwissenschaft, Leipzig: Lehnhold.
  • Stern, Gustaf (1931), Meaning and Change of Meaning with Special Reference to the English Language, [Göteborgs Högskolas Årsskrift 38], Göteborg: Elander.
  • Traugott, Elizabeth Closs (1990), "From Less to More Situated in Language: The Unidirectionality of Semantic Change", in: Adamson, Silvia et al. (eds.), Papers from the Fifth International Conference on English Historical Linguistics, 496-517, Amsterdam: Benjamins.
  • Trier, Jost (1931), Der deutsche Wortschatz im Sinnbezirk des Verstandes, Diss. Bonn.
  • Ullmann, Stephen (1957), Principles of Semantics, 2nd ed., Oxford: Blackwell.
  • Ullmann, Stephen (1962), Semantics: An Introduction to the Science of Meaning, Oxford: Blackwell.
  • Warren, Beatrice (1992), Sense Developments: A Contrastive Study of the Development of Slang Senses and Novel Standard Senses in English, [Acta Universitatis Stockholmiensis 80], Stockholm: Almqvist & Wiksell.
  • Wundt, Wilhelm (1912), Völkerpsychologie: Eine Untersuchung der Entwicklungsgesetze von Sprache, Mythus und Sitte, vol. 2,2: Die Sprache, Leipzig: Engelmann.

External links

pejoration in German: Bedeutungswandel
pejoration in Modern Greek (1453-): Ιστορική σημασιολογία
pejoration in Spanish: Cambio léxico-semántico
pejoration in Galician: Cambio semántico
pejoration in Dutch: Amelioratie
pejoration in Tamil: சொற்பொருள் மாற்றம்
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