Meaning of Words

In Linguistics, Semantics (from the Greek semantikos, or 'significant meaning', derived from sema 'sign') is traditionally defined as the study of meaning. One area of study is the study of the semantic relations between different linguistic expressions, usually words. These relations include homonymy, synonymy, antonymy, polysemy, hypernymy, and hyponymy. Linguists describe these relations and also try to characterize with as much precision as possible the meanings of words and other linguistic elements.

Semantic change [Top]

Semantic change in the context of words describes the gradual shift in the conventional meaning of words, as people use them in new types of contexts and these usages become normal. Often in the course of semantic change, a word shifts its meaning to the point that the modern meaning is radically different from the original usage. For example, awful originally meant 'awe-inspiring, filling (someone) with deep awe', as in the awful majesty of the Creator. At some point it came to mean 'breath-takingly bad; so bad that it fills (a person) with awe and amazement'. People began to use the word in contexts where the awe felt was due to something's extreme negative qualities, as in an awfully bad performance. But now the intensity of the expression has faded somewhat and an awful tasting medicine need not inspire any deep sense of awe. The word in informal usage now just means 'very bad'. Similar developments are found with terrible 'inspiring terror' and its onetime synonym terrific. The first kept its negative meaning, but lost some of its intensity; the second came to be associated with positive qualities and only then weakened its intensity. The result is that the latter two words have gone from being synonyms to almost exact antonyms.

Metaphor [Top]

Metaphor is a complex cognitive phenomenon. It is traditionally thought of as a kind of comparison, although how we make instant and internally consistent comparisons between quite disparate things is not really understood. No artificial system, such as models in artificial intelligence, can decode metaphors, and certainly no such system can produce them. Examples of metaphors in everyday language abound. The expression, You are the sunshine of my life compares someone's beloved with sunshine; something that is impossible in literal terms unless that person becomes a ball of nuclear fusion. The expression candle in the wind likens life to a candle flame that may easily be blown out by any passing draft or gust. The fragility of life is thus emphasized. But metaphor is not just associated with poetic language or especially high-flown literary language. Metaphor is an extremely common and pervasive process in language usage and its results frequently become conventionalized. Thus, the meanings of many words have their origin in metaphor. For example, a cape-like garment that protected against the weather was given the name cloak, a word borrowed from French, in which it meant 'bell'. The garment was given the name for a bell because of its cut: It created a somewhat bell-like shape when draped over the shoulders and allowed to fall vertically to the knees or below, where it "belled" out from the body.

Metaphor is considered by cognitive scientists to be a very powerful conceptual tool because it allows language users to express abstract concepts by reference to more concrete concepts which are more accessible and understandable. For example, many words for concepts without visible correlates, such as temporal terms, are taken from the vocabulary of spatial language. The words long and short describe a spatial dimension (of, for example, a table), but they also can describe a span of (invisible) time. Metaphors occasionally impede understanding, when people fail to recognize the metaphor. For example, petrified literally means 'turned to stone', but now figuratively means 'terrified' (because of the way that people and animals freeze when in extreme fear). Those who don't know the literal meaning and take the metaphorical meaning as the basic one may wonder why petrified wood has the name it does! Sometimes what was originally a metaphor can completely lose its metaphorical force, when most or all speakers can no longer see the metaphor. Such cases are called dead metaphors or opaque metaphors. The word understand, for example, is a dead metaphor, having its origins in the idea that "standing under" something was akin to having a good grasp of it (another, slightly less dead metaphor) or knowing it thoroughly. Another example is the word consider which was originally a metaphor meaning 'consult the stars (using astrological principles) when making a decision', mantel once meant 'cloak or hood to catch smoke', gorge means throat, and so forth for thousands more.

Metonymy [Top]

Metonymy is the use of one word with the meaning of another with which it is typically associated. Metonymy works by contiguity rather than similarity. The name for one thing is applied with the meaning of a different, but spatially and/or temporally associated thing. When someone uses metonymy, they don't wish to transfer qualities (as you do with metaphor), but to indirectly refer to one thing with another word for a related thing. The common expression The White House said today... is a good example of metonymy. The term White House actually refers to the authorities who work in the building called the White House. The latter is of course an inanimate object that says nothing. Similarly, in a monarchy the expression the Crown is used to mean the monarch and the departments of the government headed by the monarch. Crown literally refers only to a physical object sometimes worn by the actual monarch. In both of these cases the physical objects referred to by the words used become emblematic of the institutions associated with the object, and so the words for those objects can be applied to the (less concretely visible) institutions. Metonymy can be seen as a kind of shorthand indirect reference, and people use it all the time, sometimes in very fleeting and non-conventional ways. For example, a doctor or nurse might refer in shorthand to a patient by means of the body part treated (The broken ankle is in room 2); a waiter might use a similar metonymy for a customer, this time using the order as an identifying feature, saying The ham sandwich left without paying. In both cases the spatio-temporal contiguity of two things is exploited to use the word for one to refer to the other. The expression the press is used not only for an actual printing press (which are now becoming rare) but also for the collective institution of the print news media.

Metonymy is a conceptual device of probably equal importance to metaphor when it comes to speakers' strategies for expressing what they want to say in different ways (and their hearers' strategies for working out what that is).

Some results of change: Broadening, narrowing, amelioration, pejoration [Top]

Neologisms [Top]

Through slang and jargon, along with borrowing from other languages, new words are constantly entering the language. Examples of recent neologisms (from neo 'new' + log 'word') include punked, WMDs, and blog, among many others.