Archive for the ‘historical’ Category

A theory for semantic drift

April 1, 2011

Okay, here’s a theory to account for some of the variety in semantic drift, the gradual change of a word’s meaning.

Going back to old Saussure, the sign has two sides, the physical shape (for speech, this is the sound of the word) and what the word means. You’d think that semantic shift would only happen on the meaning side, but semantics plays on both sides of the sign because both sides relate to other signs in the language.

Let’s expand Saussure’s duality a bit with Frege’s distinction between sense (something like idea) and reference (the real world objects determined by the idea). The meaning of the sign can shift if the idea drifts, expanding (losing information) or contracting (becoming informationally richer) or just replacing some information with new information. The many pressures or inclinations on idea drift have been well observed and studied in the literature.

The physical sound-shape side of the sign can be the source of meaning shift as well, odd as that may seem. Why would an arbitrary sound have an effect on meaning? Well, for example, sound shapes in English that bear strong resemblance to Greek or Latin words tend to be treated as more serious and formal than monosyllabic Anglo-Saxon words. That seriousness affects their semantic value. Ask a class of students which endeavor is more fun and which more serious, athletics or sports, and you will get a 90% agreement that sports are a less formal activity, although if you then ask whether they denote the same set of activities, you’ll get 100% agreement that they do (and a puzzled class of students).

Speakers have a blind spot in their linguistic capacity. They have great trouble distinguishing between the word and its meaning. There’s nothing surprising about it: we do a lot of our thinking in words, so the two — thought and word — incline to meld into one another.

So it is also not surprising that the formality of a word can influence its semantic shifts. Our social attitude to a word’s sound-place in the language is part of its meaning.

So far we’ve got the following aspects of meaning:

– idea

– social attitude to the idea and relation of the idea to other ideas

– attitude to the sound shape and the relation of the sound shape to other sound shapes

– reference.

Less observed is the possibility of drift caused by the reference.

The set of real-world objects referred to by a word is determined by the idea. The idea of the word “cat” determines the set of felines. When the idea is employed colloquially as in “hep cat,” the idea determines that “cat” denotes the set of counterculturally acceptable males. Because the referent depends on the idea, drift in the idea has received most scientific attention. But the referent, even though fixed by the idea, can be the source of semantic shift as well, because social attitudes to things is not fixed.
“Democracy” denotes a specific set of government types, but that set has not always been valued in the past as it is today. In the U.S., “democracy” is viewed as almost synonymous with “just” and “right.” It wasn’t always and it need not always be.

Consider the denotation of “woman.” The boundaries of the set haven’t changed, and the properties that make a human a woman haven’t changed, but social attitudes have and the social place of women has. Surely these changes, which relate to the referent, not to the idea or the sound shape, have shifted the meaning.

“God” is another word that has surely shifted through changing attitudes to its referent, though discussing it presents the difficulty of dealing with an elusive referent.

Consider “computer.” The rapid technological advances have altered the set almost beyond recognition, from a room-sized machine exclusive to universities and military labs, to the palm pilot. That’s a reference change that directly shifts the idea.

One reason linguists don’t spend much effort observing reference-based shifts, is that those shifts depend on non linguistic phenomena, and so don’t instruct much about the nature of language itself. It would be useful, however, to learn the extent to which reference shift can be tolerated by a word and the broader linguistic effects of reference shift.

Then there’s metaphor. In a separate post I mentioned that metaphors trade on a few specifics of an analogy. They can dilute information as in

– the foot of the mountain

now means just the bottom — the toes, heel and arch are lost.

This is all just a start, but the point here is that semantic shift can occur on either side of the sign, the reference or the idea, the signified or the signifier.

I’m going to stop here for now, but there’s more in the first post on this blog, which gives a bunch of surprising facts and more surprising dynamics about semantic drift in gender words. The big surprise there is that euphemism frequently causes its opposite, pejoration.


Euphemism and euideism: distinct semantic strategies for French and Latin borrowed words

June 11, 2007

The replacement of one idea for another is a strategy that looks like euphemism but is distinct from it. I’d like to call it euideism: just as euphemisms are acceptable word forms for taboo word forms, euideisms replace taboo ideas with acceptable ones. The difference between these two strategies plays upon the twofold nature of the sign observed so long ago by old Saussure: sound shape (word form) and referent (idea) —

euphemism is motivated by an attempt to replace one sound shape for another

euideism is motivated by an attempt to replace one referent for another.

The distinction also plays into differences in register between Anglo-Saxon, French-derived and Latin/Greek-derived vocabulary in English. (more…)

Ladies and lords: refitting the feminist model of pejoration

June 11, 2007

It’s become a chestnut of feminist linguistics — maybe it’s better to call it gender linguistics, to remove the politics from the science, if that’s possible or wise — that the frequent pejoration of words for disempowered people on the one hand, and the frequent pejoration of words denoting women on the other, strongly implies that women have been socially disempowered through the history of the language (as if one needed evidence for this!). Words like “knave,” which once meant simply ‘boy,’ and “villein” which meant merely ‘peasant’ have pejorated, and even “boy” is pejorating in exactly the way “knave” did: “I’ll get my boys on it” says the pop culture mobster, meaning not that he’ll get his male children to do it, but that he’ll get his servants, his henchmen. On the other hand, words denoting objects of value don’t pejorate even if they are female: the generic term for cattle is “cow,” for Daffy’s cousins, “duck” not “drake.”

I’m not going to contest the disempowerment of women, but I think the feminist correlation is too neat. The dynamics of pejoration seem to differ depending on the word, some showing signs of disempowerment, some not, so it is good to look at the cases one by one. I have in mind the female&male pairs

lady, lord

governess, governor

queen, king

madam, sir

princess, prince

all of which niftily show pejoration in the female-, not in the male-denoting word.


Starting with “lady,” the pejoration of which does, I think, show a gender difference in empowerment or prestige: the word began as a designation for the wife of the Anglo-Saxon chief. Each tribe cultivated its warriors, bringing them all under one roof of the chief’s house (remember King Lear and his rowdy entourage his daughters refused to host — Lear was an Anglo-Saxon king). In the warriors’ big house, the chief was the warden of the loaves, or “hlafweard,” (later “laward,” eventually “lord”) and she the loaf kneeder, the “hlafdige” (later “lavedi,” eventually “lady”). A difference in power and prestige is obvious at the origin. Even though labor is more essential to social survival, it is distinguished here from authority and possession which are handed to the male of the pair.

But “lady” was not without prestige. Most important, she and the lord were socially unique. There was but one lady per tribe. The closest equivalent in present-day English would be “queen.” Subordinate she may have been, but she received her tribe’s deference deflected from her husband.

Power relations changed under the Normans. The unique Anglo-Saxon chieftain was replaced with a class of superiors. Under occupation, all the occupiers may as well be kings with respect to the occupied. And the words “lord” and “lady” reflect this widening of denotation, but “lady” much more than “lord.” Feudal Norman male-oriented culture may have helped sustain the prestige and uniqueness of “lord” and while there were many Norman lords and ladies, there was still only one ruling lord in the land, but no corresponding ruling lady.

Dick Leith, in his Social History of English, tells a story of the replacement of informal “thou” with formal”you” in class-mobile industrial society where one never knows who is a genuine social superior and who is just new money, so people hedge their bets to err on the side of formality just in case. No doubt the same with “lady.” And again, the association of unique power to rule may have prevented “lord” from wallowing in such commonality. To have many ladies in ones social order may be an embarrassment of riches, but it is no contradiction. To have many lords is both. And so, today a lady is distinguished from the general class of adult females by the least mark of prestige. That it retains some prestige is evident from its ironic use in “ladies of the night,” which wouldn’t hold its humor and irony if it weren’t that whores don’t count in the usual inventory of the set denoted by “lady.”

The word today is full of surprising contrasts. As a common title of address it is formal but insulting:
Excuse me, lady (so demeaning it isn’t used anymore)
Excuse me, miss (according to my students, always preferred to “ma’am”)
As a descriptor, it is distinguishable from “woman” only in its absence of sexual, warm-blooded connotation
It’s that lady over there
It’s that woman over there

Sensitivity to gender inequality is rendering this “lady” obsolete. It survives in “ladies and gentleman,” and in circumstances where “gentlemen” is perceived as too formal, “women” is often perceived as too human.
The men on the left, ladies to the right
though it can depend on the gender of the speaker — women in polite situations often seem to feel the need to show more delicacy addressing men and vice versa.

The standard denotation of “lady” has widened immensely, spreading its girth almost to cover the entire class of adult females, its only vestige of prestige its lack of human warmth and sexuality.

However, it has great vitality as a colloquialism, where its connotations of dignity and respect reappear. Your lady is your girlfriend. It’s a title that seems to combine endearment with deflected respect (my woman deserves the respect I demand for myself) and subordination all rolled into one. Not too far from “hlafedige.”


As a term of address and a title, this word has not lost any more prestige than its male counterpart. The expansion of both reflects the decline from feudal rules to bourgeois pleasantries. It’s its use as a euphemism for the brothel administratrix that is claimed by feminists to distinguish “madam” from “sir.” It must be the power of the prestigious male that spares “sir” the place of “pimp.”

I don’t think so. Euphemism replaces an unacceptable word or covers an unacceptable idea with an acceptable word. (There are euideisms as well, but I leave that for another discussion.) There’s no eu if the stand-in word isn’t in itself acceptable and prestigious. In the case of “madam,” the denotation itself commands some respect. The pop culture image of the madam is full of dignity. She resembles nothing so much as an imperious, rigid, protective prioress of an abbey, and she’s usually tougher to bring down. The image of the pimp: a vile and villainous, cheaply and comically pretentious, tasteless and reprehensible predator. The pimp holds a special place in our culture. He is universally despised. There have been many sympathetic treatments of drug addicts, whores, indigents and criminals of all sorts, murderers, rapists, serial killers, even Hitler is probed for his motives and the possibility of an underlying human interest, but the pimp is such an unworthy worm no one will take his cause even to investigate his human motives. Why euphemize him? We don’t.

(A pander is a different person entirely.)

Euphemism as a road to pejoration doesn’t always prove disempowerment. But it does by definition prove the prestige of the euphemic word. If the euphemic word doesn’t have some prestige, then it can’t serve as a euphemism, there is no euphemism. Euphemisms have prestige by definition.


Another case of euphemism. And again, it is the prestige of the word and the (small) prestige of the position that invites the euphemy. And it’s not just a euphemism for baby-sitter or nanny: it pays better and provides better references and maybe even accommodations of an au pair. Apparently “governor” has undergone worse as “gov’nah” though not stateside, where governors all rule one or another of the fifty states of the union. Other uses of “governor” have an air of anachronism in the US.

The point here is not to deny that the female-denoting word has pejorated — it has — but to learn something from the particular process of pejoration. It is not enough to describe these euphemisms as simple reflections of lack of empowerment or prestige. Euphemism is a reflection of prestige, not its lack. The euphemism is dragged down by the denotation of the word it replaces, not by social disempowerment. It’s a case of no good deed going unpunished. The feminist story is not entirely wrong. It’s just partial.


Gender inequality is most evident here at the top. There’s no “queen of the mountain,” no female Elvis “the Queen,” no “Queen Kong.” The cross-gender epithet carries such an intensely negative implication, that one has to wonder whether males have commandeered social affect and mores in the language, here at least. Male disparagement of femininity is nowhere more evident than in this one epithet that equates everything anathema to manhood with womanhood, and not just womanhood, but the ultimate woman, the queen. The word virtue itself derives from Latin vir, ‘man.’ We’re at a puzzling place for the understanding of linguistic values. Mothers’ linguistic influence is surely greater on children, male or female, than fathers’. So what is the origin of this capitulation to maleness? Were women so thoroughly marginalized in common discourse? Were they treated as mere chattel? Judging from the language, they were.

More later, I have to get to rehearsal.