Semantic Change

Silly are the goddy tawdry maudlin for they shall christgeewhiz bow down before him: bedead old men, priest and prester, babeling a pitterpatternoster: no word is still the word, but, a loafward has become lord.

Ronald Suffield, “The Tenth Beatitude”

This subtle poem by the English philologist Ronald Suffield is actually written at two levels. For Suffield intends that the reader hold in mind not just the current meanings of these words but the original meanings as well. For the meaning of a word changes over time. The example everyone knows is gay, which originally meant “merry”, but because some people are a little too merry came to mean “wanton”, and because some people are a little too wanton came to mean “homosexual”, which is the sense almost exclusively used now.

A model language that you develop will have words that are descended from words with quite different meanings. Some of the words used in Ronald Suffield’s poem, The Tenth Beatitude, will be used to demonstrate how words change through time.



Pejoration is the process by which a word’s meaning worsens or degenerates, coming to represent something less favorable than it originally did. Most of the words in Suffield’s poem have undergone pejoration.

For instance, the word silly begins Suffield’s poem and meant in Old English times “blessed”, which is why Suffield calls his poem a beatitude (Christ’s beatitudes begin with “blessed are the…”). How did a word meaning “blessed” come to mean “silly”? Well, since people who are blessed are often innocent and guileless, the word gradually came to mean “innocent”. And some of those who are innocent might be innocent because they haven’t the brains to be anything else. And some of those who are innocent might be innocent because they knowingly reject opportunities for temptation. In either case, since the more worldly-wise would take advantage of their opportunities, the innocents must therefore be foolish, which of course is the current primary meaning of the word silly.

The word goddy in the poem is a metaplasmus (artful misspelling) of gaudy. The word gaudy was derived from the Latin word gaudium, “joy”, which was applied to praying (as a type of rejoicing). Because the most common prayers in Middle English times were the prayers of the rosary, Middle English gaude came to be associated with the rosary and came to mean “an ornamental rosary bead”. Unfortunately, not all who prayed with the rosary were genuinely pious; many were like the Pharisees of old and just wanted to be seen praying — religion for them was decorative (ornamental) rather than functional. As a result, modern English gaudy gradually acquired its current meaning of tasteless or ostentatious ornamentation.

A related word to gaudy, which is not explicitly referenced in Suffield’s poem but is implied, is bead (in the poem, bedead is probably an anagrammatic play on beaded). In Middle English times, bead (then spelled ‘bede’) referred only to a rosary bead. Middle English bede was itself descended from Old English gebed, prayer. The phrase telling one’s beads was literally “saying one’s prayers”, with each rosary bead used to keep count of the number of prayers said. In the days when all English-speaking Christians were Catholics, using the rosary was such a common practice that it was only natural for the word for prayer to become the word for the bead used to say a prayer.

In this way, Suffield is arguing, deep spiritual communication has been trivialized into a trinket. Modern English bead has come so far from its original center that its sphere of meaning no longer includes prayer — but does include other small round objects, such as beads of sweat.

The word rosary, incidentally, originally was Latin for “a rose garden”, which was applied as a metaphorical description of the prayer cycle, which was “a rose garden of prayers”, with the rose garden symbolizing both the Garden of Eden (or paradise, which originally meant, well we could go on forever…) and the rose of the Virgin Mary.

A word that has shown similar semantic degeneration to gaudy is tawdry. In the eighth century, AEthelthy/rth, Queen of Northumbria, abdicated her office and renounced the pleasures of the flesh, having her marriage to the King of Northumbria annulled to become abbess of a monastery on the Isle of Ely. This act of sacrifice and her subsequent holiness prompted others to revere her as a saint. Legend has it that she died of a disease of the throat, a disease that she regarded as judgment upon the vanity of her youth, when she loved to wear beautiful necklaces in court. Eventually, AEthelthy/rth was beatified, and — as by this time phonetic change had simplified her name to Audrey — she was known as St. Audrey. An annual fair was held in her memory each October 17th, and at the fair were sold cheap souvenirs, including a neck lace called St. Audrey’s lace. In England, the initial [s] of saints’ names is often elided (for instance, the town of St. Albans in Hertfordshire is locally pronounced as [talbans] by some). As a result of this process, by the 1800s, the necklaces were called tawdry laces. It wasn’t long before tawdry was applied to the other cheap souvenirs sold at the annual fair, with the result that tawdry became a general adjective meaning “gaudy and cheap in appearance”.

The word tawdry is not the only eponymous word to degenerate: the last word in Suffield’s first stanza, maudlin, is short for Magdalene. Mary Magdalene was the reformed prostitute who wept at Christ’s tomb that first Easter morning; this weeping has been memorialized in innumerable medieval paintings and stain-glass windows. As a result, her name came to be used to describe anyone who was weeping, and from there the meaning radiated out to “excessively sentimental.” Magdalene came to be pronounced maudlin through gradual phonetic change; in fact, Magdalen College at Oxford University is locally known as Maudlin. Silly are the goddy tawdry maudlin.

Moving on to the next line of Suffield’s poem (for they shall christgeewhiz bow down before him), we find another religious figure, of greater stature than Mary Magdalene or St. Audrey, who has had his name spawn many new words. Of course, this is Jesus Christ, whose name has become an oath. Because swearing is considered inappropriate in polite society, people slightly changed the sound of the invective. Damn it! became darn it!, shit! became shoot!, Jesus! became gee, gee whiz and geez and Jesus Christ! became Jiminy Crickets, among others. These euphemistic changes are called minced oaths.

The final word in Suffield’s poem to undergo pejoration is paternoster, which is descended from the Latin pater noster, which represents “Our Father”, the first words of the Lord’s Prayer. As a result of this relationship, the words came to be known as another name for the Lord’s Prayer and came to mean one of the large beads on a rosary on which the Paternoster was recited (those beads again!). As its meaning radiated outward from “large bead”, it even came to mean “a weighted fishing line with hooks connected by bead-like swivels”. The word paternoster also came to mean any word-formula spoken as a prayer or magic spell. Since the Paternoster was in Latin, and in Medieval times Latin was no longer the native language of any of the reciters, the prayer was often recited quickly and with little regard for the sense of the words. Because of this, paternoster came to mean meaningless chatter, words empty of meaning — this sense of the word gave rise to the form patter. (The word pitter-patter, though used by Suffield in his poem, is actually etymologically unrelated to the word patter with this meaning.)

Patter has the sense of meaningless words, and sharp words can become rounded and dull. But although Suffield laments that no word is still the Word [of God], some words do assume a dignity they had not before possessed.


Amelioration is the process by which a word’s meaning improves or becomes elevated, coming to represent something more favorable than it originally referred to.

Two words that have undergone amelioration are priest and prester. Both words (along with presbyter) are descended from the Greek word presbuteros, “older man, elder”, a comparative form of the word presbus, “old man”. Because churches of most religions are headed by elders and not youth, and because age is often equated with wisdom, the Greek word gradually acquired the meaning of “church leader, priest”. The different forms represent borrowings made at different times, with priest being the oldest English form, followed by prester, followed by the learned borrowing of presbyter.

In what for Suffield is the greatest example of amelioration, the early Old English word hláfweard, which if translated using its descendant words would be rendered loafward, meant “the keeper of the bread” and was applied to the head of a household. Although “keeper of the bread” might bear witness to the importance of that most basic of foodstuffs to early Anglo-Saxons, alternatively one might argue that it had no more literal sense than bread- does in the modern word breadwinner. The word hláfweard has been shortened over time, first to hláford and then to lord. Over time, the word has been used of not just any head of household but of princes and nobility; this sense was extended to include the Prince of Light, God. For Suffield, this extension of lord makes a fitting appellation for Christ, given that Christ was the keeper of the bread of communion. The word lord, which ends the poem, stands in start contrast to the demeaning phrase christgeewhiz used earlier in the poem as an example of pejoration. By ending the poem with the word lord, Suffield offers a hope for redemption for all words.

Clearly the poet Suffield believes that man has taken the meaning out of God’s words, reducing pater noster to patter and God’s son’s name to a curse. Yet if he is extreme in his view of pejoration as an example of man’s trivialization of God and rejection of divine meaning, the process of semantic change is almost universally condemned by teachers, scholars and other concerned language speakers. In fact, semantic drift is as natural as continental drift and almost as inexorable. The meanings of words change, sometimes for the worse, but sometimes providing useful distinctions. Some words, like lord, are even inspired.

Categories of semantic change

As the above discussion shows, many people view semantic change with strong emotions. Some, like Suffield, may even perceive it as an almost diabolical force. The discussion of meaning change is often emotionally charged, with the meanings perceived as “improving” (amelioration) or “worsening” (pejoration) over time. This next section will attempt to provide a more clinical overview of how words change meanings.

Try this: flip through the dictionary and look at random for a word with four or more meanings, preferably a word you think you know. Chances are you will find that it has an unlikely hodge-podge of meanings, at least one of which will surprise you. Here’s what I found when I tried this myself: daughter has these senses, among others:

  1. One’s female child.
  2. A female descendant.
  3. A woman thought of as if in a parent/child relationship: a daughter of Christ.
  4. Something personified as a female descendant: the Singer sewing machine is the daughter of the loom.
  5. Physics. The immediate product of the radioactive decay of an element.

The last sense makes me want to write a short story, The Daughter of Fat Man, in which I could use the word daughter in at least three of its senses. How does a word come to have such broad, often very different, meanings?

At the simplest level, words do undergo only two types of meaning change, not amelioration and pejoration, but generalization (a word’s meaning widens to include new concepts), and specialization (a word’s meaning contracts to focus on fewer concepts).



Also known as extension, generalization is the use of a word in a broader realm of meaning than it originally possessed, often referring to all items in a class, rather than one specific item. For instance, place derives from Latin platea, “broad street”, but its meaning grew broader than the street, to include “a particular city”, “a business office”, “an area dedicated to a specific purpose” before broadening even wider to mean “area”. In the process, the word place displaced (!) the Old English word stow and became used instead of the Old English word stede (which survives in stead, steadfast, steady and — of course — instead).

Generalization is a natural process, especially in situations of “language on a shoestring”, where the speaker has a limited vocabulary at her disposal, either because she is young and just acquiring language or because she is not fluent in a second language. A first-year Spanish student on her first vacation in Spain might find herself using the word coche, “car”, for cars, trucks, jeeps, buses, and so on. When my son Alexander was two, he used the word oinju (from orange juice) to refer to any type of juice, including grape juice and apple juice; wawa (from water) referred to water and hoses, among other things.

Some examples of general English words that have undergone generalization include:

Word Old Meaning
pants “men’s wide breeches extending from waist to ankle”
place “broad street”


The opposite of generalization, specialization is the narrowing of a word to refer to what previously would have been but one example of what it referred to. For instance, the word meat originally referred to “any type of food”, but came to mean “the flesh of animals as opposed to the flesh of fish”. The original sense of meat survives in terms like mincemeat, “chopped apples and spices used as a pie filling”; sweetmeat, “candy”; and nutmeat, “the edible portion of a nut”. When developing your model language, it is meet to leave compounds untouched, even if one of their morphemes has undergone specialization (or any other meaning change).

For an example from another language, the Japanese word koto originally referred to “any type of stringed instrument” but came to be used to refer only a specific instrument with 13 strings, which was played horizontally and was popular in the Edo Period.

Other examples of specialization, from the development of English, include:

Word Old Meaning
affection “emotion”
deer “animal”
forest “countryside”
girl “a young person”
starve “to die”

A taxonomy of semantic change

All other semantic change can be discussed in either terms of generalization or specialization. The following diagram shows different subtypes of meaning change.

A shift in meaning results from the subsequent action of generalization and specialization over time: a word that has extended into a new area then undergoes narrowing to exclude its original meaning. In the unlikely event that all the senses of place except for “a business office” faded away, then place would be said to have undergone a shift.



Metonymy is a figure of speech where one word is substituted for a related word; the relationship might be that of cause and effect, container and contained, part and whole. For instance, Shakespeare’s comment “Is it not strange that sheep’s guts should hale souls out of men’s bodies?” (from Much Ado About Nothing) uses “sheep’s guts” to refer to the music produced by harpstrings. Had guts come to mean “music”, then the meaning would have shifted due to metonymy.

The Greek word dóma originally meant “roof”. In the same way English speakers will metonymically use roof to mean “house” (as in “Now we have a roof over our heads”), the Greeks frequently used dóma to refer to “house”, so that that is now the standard meaning of the word. A Russian word will provide a similar example: vinograd, “vineyard”, was so frequently used to refer to “grapes”, as in “Let’s have a taste of the vineyard” that it has come to mean “grapes”.

Metaphorical extension

Grace Murray Hopper, the late Admiral and computer pioneer, told a story of an early computer that kept calculating incorrectly. When technicians opened up its case to examine the wiring, which physically represented the machine’s logic, a huge dead moth was found, shorting out one of the circuits and causing the faulty logic. That moth was the first of its kind to achieve immortality. Because of it, software is now frequently plagued with “bugs”.

The use of bug to refer to an error in computer logic was a metaphorical extension that became so popular that it is now part of the regular meaning of bug. The computer industry has a host of words whose meaning has been extended through such metaphors, including mouse for that now ubiquitous computer input device (so named because the cord connecting it to the computer made it resemble that cutest of rodents).

Metaphorical extension is the extension of meaning in a new direction through popular adoption of an originally metaphorical meaning. The crane at a construction site was given its name by comparison to the long-necked bird of the same name. When the meaning of the word daughter was first extended from that of “one’s female child” to “a female descendant” (as in daughter of Eve), the listener might not have even noticed that the meaning had been extended.

Metaphorical extension is almost a natural process undergone by every word. We don’t even think of it as meaning change. In its less obvious instances, we don’t even see it as extending the meaning of a word. For example, the word illuminate originally meant “to light up”, but has broadened to mean “to clarify”, “to edify”. These meanings seem so natural as to be integral parts of the words, where senses such as “to celebrate” and “to adorn a page with designs” seem like more obvious additions.

A few specific metaphors are common to many different languages, and words can be shown to have undergone similar, if independent, developments. Thus the Welsh word haul and the Gaelic word súil, both meaning “sun”, have both come to mean “eye”. Nor is this metaphor a stranger to English, where the daisy was in Old English originally a compound meaning “day’s eye”, from its yellow similarity to the sun.

More often, languages will differ in the precise correspondences between words, so that some languages have broad words with many meanings, which must be translated into multiple words in another language. A word like paternoster, discussed earlier, with senses ranging from the “Lord’s Prayer” to “a magic spell” to “a large bead” to “a weighted fishing line” will have to be translated into four different words in another language (though I challenge you to find an English-to-language-of-your- choice dictionary that indicates the four meanings of paternoster).

Word Old Meaning
illuminate “to light up”


Radiation is metaphorical extension on a grander scale, with new meanings radiating from a central semantic core to embrace many related ideas. The word head originally referred to that part of the human body above the rest. Since the top of a nail, pin or screw is, like the human head, the top of a slim outline, that sense has become included in the meaning of head. Since the bulb of a cabbage or lettuce is round like the human head, that sense has become included in the meaning of head. Know where I’m headed with this? The meaning of the word head has radiated out to include the head of a coin (the side picturing the human head), the head of the list (the top item in the list), the head of a table, the head of the family, a head of cattle, $50 a head. But I’ll stop while I’m ahead.

Other words that have similarly radiated meanings outward from a central core include the words heart, root and sun.


The only specific subtype of specialization that I have identified is contextual specialization.

Contextual specialization

The word undertaker originally meant “one who undertakes a task, especially one who is an entrepreneur”. This illustrates contextual specialization, where the meaning of a word is reshaped under pressure from another word that had frequently co-occured with it: thus undertaker acquired its meaning from constant use of the phrase funeral undertaker; eventually, under the pressure towards euphemism, the word funeral was dropped.

Another example of contextual specialization is doctor, which originally meant “a teacher” and then later “an expert”, where it came to be used in the phrase medical doctor; now of course this is redundant and medical is omitted, with the primary sense of doctor having become more specialized.

Word Old Meaning
undertaker “entrepreneur”
doctor “teacher”


I heard an American student at Cambridge University telling some English friends how he climbed over a locked gate to get into his college and tore his pants, and one of them asked, ‘But, how could you tear your pants and not your trousers?’

Norman Moss, “British/American Language Dictionary”

Shifts occur when the sense of a word expands and contracts, with the final focus of the meaning different from the original. For some reason, words describing clothing tend to shift meanings more frequently than other words, perhaps because fashion trends come and go, leaving words to seem as old fashioned as the clothing they describe. Who today wants to wear bloomers, knickers or pantaloons?

The word pants has an interesting history. It’s ultimate etymon is Old Italian Pantalone. In the 1600s, Italy developed commedia dell’arte, a style of comedy based on improvisation using stock characters. Pantalone was a stock character who was portrayed as a foolish old man wearing slippers and tight trousers. Through regular metyonmy, speakers of Old French borrowed his name to describe his Italian trousers. Their word was then borrowed into English as pantaloon, which in time was shortened to pants and came to mean trousers in general. British speakers of English have modified the meaning again to the sense of “underpants”, resulting in the confusing situation described in Norman Moss’ quote above.

Cast like discarded laundry along the divide separating British and American English are quite a few words for clothing, as the following table shows.

Word Meaning
jumper Etymon: English dialect jump
Original: “loose jacket”
American: “pinafore”
British: “a light pullover”
knickers Etymon: knickerbockers
Original: “breeches banded below knee”
American: “boy’s baggy trousers banded below knee”
British: “bloomers, old-fashioned female underpants”
pants Etymon: pantaloon, from Old French pantalon
Original: “men’s wide breeches extending from waist to ankle”
American: “trousers”
British: “underpants”
suspenders Etymon: suspend
Original: (unchanged) “straps to support trousers”
American: (unchanged)
British: “garter”
tights Etymon: tight, adj.
Original: (unchanged) “snug, stretchable apparel worn from neck to toe; typically worn by dancers or acrobats”
American: (unchanged)
British: “pantyhose”
vest Etymon: Old French veste It. Lat. vestis
Original: “clothing”
American: “waistcoat”
British: “undershirt”


Suffield’s poem gave many good examples of amelioration, including priest from “old man”. A complementary term, pastor, likewise underwent amelioration, originally meaning “shepherd” (a sense surviving in the word pastoral), but coming to mean its current sense of “minister” by the extensive Christian references to “the Lord is my shepherd” as a call to ministry.

The following table shows other examples, including pluck in the sense of He has a lot of pluck.

Word Old Meaning
enthusiasm “abuse”
guts (“courage”) “entrails”
pastor “shepherd”
pluck (“spirit”) “act of tugging”
queen “woman”


King James II called the just completed St. Paul’s Cathedral amusing, awful and artificial. Call the just completed rock and roll museum in Cleveland amusing, awful and artificial, and you may be accurate but you will mean something quite different from King James. When he lived, those words meant that the cathedral was “pleasing, awe-inspiring and artful” respectively. The meaning of each word has grown more negative with time. People seem much more likely to drag words down than to lift them up, to build museums instead of cathedrals, as the following examples may demonstrate.

Word Old Meaning
crafty “strong”
cunning “knowing”
egregious “distinguished, standing out from the herd”
harlot “a boy”
notorious “famous”
obsequious “flexible”
vulgar “popular”

Semantic reversal

Occasionally a word will shift so far from its original meaning that its meaning will nearly reverse. Fascinatingly enough, the word manufacture originally meant “to make by hand”.

Word Old Meaning
counterfeit “an original”
garble “to sort out”
manufacture “to make by hand”


A contronym is like a word that has undergone semantic reversal, only the tension has not eased: the word still preserves its original meaning, along with a contradictory — if not exactly counterposed — meaning.

*The older of the two senses given

Word Meanings
bimonthly “happening every other month”, “happening twice monthly”
biweekly “happening every other week”, “happening twice weekly”
ravish “to overwhelm with force, especially rape”*, “to overwhelm with emotion, enrapture”
sanction “authoritative measure of approval”*, “coercive measure of disapproval of nation against nation”
table Brit. “to put on the table for discussion”, Amer. “to set aside a motion rather than discuss it”

Interestingly, biannual means only “twice each year”, with no recorded sense of “every other year” in Webster’s II New Riverside University Dictionary.

The word cleave (meaning “to split or separate” or “to adhere or cling”) is actually two different words, both from the Old English (cle-ofan and cleofian respectively) but by changes in pronunciation, these words have evolved the same current form.


The nadir of semantics is meaninglessness. The final semantic change. The death of meaning. The defeat of sigor.

The word sigor is Old English for “victory”. It is now meaningless to almost all English speakers, except for those familiar with Old English or with German (where its cognate survives in Seig).

Few now know what sigor means. Is this a change in its meaning or a change in the very state of the word? Is death part of life?

Meaning change across languages

Imagine for a moment that sigor had survived. It might have been changed to siyor, and its meaning could have generalized to “success”. It would then stand in contrast to the German Seig.

Sister languages, or dialects of a language, often have the same basic word with different meanings. These word pairs then become known as “false friends” to speakers trying to learn the other language. For instance, German Lust means “pleasure”, which is in fact the original meaning of the English word, which comes from the same common ancestor as Lust. In English, lust underwent specialization and pejoration, as speakers associated it with only one type of pleasure. The British and American English clothing terms also show how related languages can send words off in different directions over time.

As you develop your model languages, you should have words in related languages undergo different semantic changes. Situations where a word’s meaning changes in two related languages are relatively rare, the example of the Irish and Gaelic words for “sun” evolving into “eye” notwithstanding.

When languages borrow words, they frequently change the meanings of those borrowings, typically making generic words more specific, in the same way that one language’s place names often grew out of another language’s generic words for concepts such as “hill”, “river” and “town”. Take the history of the Low German word spittal, derived from a generic Romance word for “hospital” but then applied to “a hospital for lepers”.

Meaning change through time


Future meaning change

Words are slowly changing in meaning even now, though the changes happen at the speed of continental drift rather than with the sudden jolt of earthquakes. To conclude this issue, and to summarize the types of meaning change discussed here, I have extrapolated how some words might change meanings in the next 25 years.

Generalization: entrepreneur, “small-business owner or worker” (because of its favorable connotations, this word was widely adopted as a label, even by those who were not risk takers).

Metonymy: sun-cell, “electric car” (so called because of the prominent solar cell on the roof of the vehicle).

Metaphorical Extension: surfaced, “checked all Internet messages, including e-mail, voice mail and video mail” (originally popularized in the phrase I just surfaced from checking my flood of e-mail; given added cachet under the influence of surf, which see).

Radiation: Internet, “Internet, narrowcast television, narrowcast radio, virtual reality, videoconferencing” (because it all was added onto the ‘Net).

Specialization: surf, “navigate the Internet” (traditional “water surfing” becomes called sea-boarding).

Contextual Specialization: candidate, “political candidate” (the word contestant began to be used instead of candidate for non-political contexts).

Shift: fax, “point-to-point e-mail” (e-mail gradually superseded fax). post-modern, “modern” (by calling everything modern post- modern, this change was inevitable).

Amelioration: temp, “specialist”.

Pejoration: liberal, “idiot” (this term was used as an insult as early as 1988 and was gradually abandoned as a label by the Democrats it originally described). job, “drudgery”.

Semantic Reversal: modern, “obsolete” (thanks to the change in meaning of post-modern). putrid, “cool” (slang).

Contronym: communism, “communism, capitalism” (courtesy of the Hong Kong communists).

Meaninglessness: perestroika (this word was used only by historians interested in how the Russian economy followed that of Sicily).

If you want to create a slang or jargon, besides coining new words you should change the meanings of current words, much as these examples did. Just be aware that it is easier for an outsider to pick up new words than old words whose meaning has changed, since the outsider will bring all his assumptions from past experience to bear, so that when he hears a teenager call something putrid, he will assume that it is putrid.

The history of meaning change

To say that Bilbo’s breath was taken away is no description at all. There are no words left to express his staggerment, since Men changed the language that they learned of elves in the days when all the world was wonderful. Bilbo had heard tell and sing of dragon-hoards before, but the splendour, the lust, the glory of such treasure had never yet come home to him.

J.R.R. Tolkien, “The Hobbit”

If the history of semantic change had to be summed up as one process, it would be that of specialization. The Anglo Saxons 1500 years ago made do with perhaps 30,000 words in their complete vocabulary, while Modern English has anywhere from 500,000 to a million words, depending on whether or not scientific vocabularies are included.

“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was God, and the Word was with God.” It could be argued that originally there was one word, from which all others have sprung. The origins of language will never be known, but the first language probably had a vocabulary of a few hundred words, providing a rich enough vocabulary for a primitive people who had few materials and fewer abstract concepts. Many of the words of the first languages had very broad senses of meaning.

For instance, the word inspire is from the Latin inspirare, which literally means “to breathe into”. Its archaic meaning is “to breathe life into”, with newer meanings like “to be the cause of”, “to elicit”, “to move to action”, “to exalt” and “to guide by divine influence”. Now if a minister were to speak of Adam as dust inspired, he might mean by that not just that the dust is having life breathed into it (the original etymological meaning), but also that the dust is being exalted and given form, that it is being moved to action, and that it is being divinely guided (these are the metaphorical or extended meanings). In other words, this minister might not mean just one of the definitions of inspired but all of them simultaneously.

The extended meanings are branches that have split off from the trunk, and our hypothetical minister has simply traced them back to the root.

If you seek to create a language from an earlier time, you should probably develop a small vocabulary, with it words having much more overlapping of meaning than the vocabularies of modern languages. Imagine a word spiratholmos — an ancient ancestor to Latin inspirare — meaning “wind, breath, voice, spirit.” A speaker who used the word spiratholmos would regard the wind in the trees as the breath of the earth, the voice of God, the spirit animating each of us.

This is different way of looking at words, and prompted Tolkien to write, “There are no words left to express his staggerment, since Men changed the language that they learned of elves in the days when all the world was wonderful.” What Tolkien’s elves might have expressed in one word, resonant with meaning, Tolkien’s diminutive man cannot express at all.

Semantic change can be viewed dispassionately as a natural process, but it can also be invested with a spiritual significance, as Tolkien and Suffield have done. A model language is an art form and its crafting can even convey this theme of spiritual isolation. As Ronald Suffield wrote, “no word is still the word, but, a loafward has become lord.”

Contents copyright 1995 Jeffrey Henning. All rights reserved.

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