Words: changes of meaning


Words as living things. 

We use words all the time without realizing the wonderful cultural process involved. All words have a long history behind them, but in most cases, their beginnings are lost in the mist of times, as the origin of  language remains a mystery to this day. We Christians believe that the power to speak was given to man by God. In the Bible, In Genesis, 2.19, we find: “And out of the ground the Lord God formed every beast of the field, and every fowl of the air; and brought them unto Adam to see what he would call them: and whatsoever Adam called every living creature, that was the name thereof.” This is  perhaps a very good way of putting what many linguists affirm: That man has an innate capacity to use language, but in order to develop this capacity  he must be in contact with other men, in other words, he must learn how to speak. It is a fact that man has given names, arbitrary names, in 99% of the cases, to the things that surround him, but it would seem that after inventing words, he lost control over them. We could say that words become living things, independent from their creator, and like any other living being, they are born, they change, and they die.

In effect, even if we do not know when, there must have been a definite time when a word was born, when it was first used. We are better informed, however,  about the approximate time when they die. We know, for instance, that the following OE. words are dead:  larhus was replaced by school (11thC), brother sunu, by nephew (14th C), inwit by conscience (13th C), etc. And words change their meanings. We can distinguish three different types of change of meaning: extension, limitation and transfer:
            extension: a word acquires new meanings. For example, when the railway was invented in the first quarter of the 19th c., new terms were needed to name the new objects. But instead of creating new words, what man did was to take terms that already existed for other things and apply them to the new invention:
train- already existed from OF. traîner, to drag, to draw, as “a body of persons, animals or vehicles travelling together in order, esp. in a long line or procession” (OED. 1489), and it was adopted for ‘train of carriages’ around 1825.
carriage- from OF. cariage, from carie, to carry was used for  “a wheeled vehicle” (OED., 1560), then, “a vehicle drawn by horses kept for private use” (OED. 1741), hence, “a railway carriage” (1825).
rail- from Latin regla, bar, rod, “a rod for hanging things”, (OED. 1320, we still have towel-rail); then, “wooden parts of a fence” (OED., 1494), hence, “continuous line of bars laid for wheels to run on (18th C.), hence, ‘rails for trains’ (19th c.)
            limitation- A word can restrict its meaning:

meat- OE. mete (OED c10th C), meant solid food, as opposed to drink; in the 14th C., and esp. in the 15th C., it came to be applied to the flesh of animals.
starve- OE. steorfan, to die-  became in the 16th C, to die of hunger or of cold (when in the 12th C. die, perhaps a Norse word, began to be used, gradually driving  out starve, with that meaning); in fact,  now starve can mean 'to die of hunger', but also just to suffer from  hunger; you can say I`m starving, without meaning necessarily that you are going to die.
Undertaker once meant one who could ‘undertake’ to do anything, now an undertaker only undertakes to make funerals.
            transfer (or change of meaning proper)- Transfer can be of two kinds:  elevations and degradations.

Examples of elevation of meaning:

minister (ministro), for instance, meant ‘servant’ in Latin,

angel (ángel), meant ‘messenger’ in Greek,

paradise (paraíso), comes from Latin paradisus, which in turn comes from Greek paradeisos, which meant ‘park’, ‘garden’.

As examples of degradation of meaning, we can cite:

knave [a - granuja (obs). b - (naipes) sota, jota], which in OE. knafa, meant ‘boy’,

harlot (ramera), from OF herlot,  ‘rascal’

One word with a long history involving elevations and degradations is 'nice'- from OF. nice, corresp. to Spanish ‘necio’, from Latin, nescius; it has had the following meanings according to the OED:

            1.- foolish, stupid, c1200- 1550 
            2.- wanton, lascivious, c1325-1606
            3.- coy, shy- 1400- 1634
            4.-  uncommon- 1413
            5.- .- (of dress) extravagant- c1430-1563
            6.- elegant-1483-1540
            7.- refined in tastes, difficult to please, 1551-1782
            8.- tender, delicate, 1562- 1710
            9.- effeminate- 1573- 1681
            10.- agreeable, attractive, appetizing, pleasant, kind, considerate- 1796-1975

Some of these meanings are now obsolete, but nice is still a polysemous  word which, according to the Diccionario Pedagógico Bilingüe, can have the following meanings:

nice /naIs/ adj (comp nicer; super nicest) (a) nice (to sb)/of sb (to do sth)/about sth amable (con alguien)/por parte de alguien (hacer algo)/con respecto a algo: you're very nice eres/es usted muy amable; be nice to your little sister sé amable con/trata bien a tu hermana pequeña; it was nice of her to call fue muy amable de/por su parte llamar; she was very nice about it se mostró/fue muy amable sobre eso. (b) agradable, simpático,-a (persona): he's a very nice man es un hombre muy agradable/simpático. (c) bien: it was nice estuvo bien. (d) bonito,-a (cosa, lugar): a nice smile una bonita sonrisa; a nice view una bonita vista. (e) bueno (tiempo): what nice weather we're having! ¡qué tiempo tan bueno está haciendo! (f) bueno,-a, rico,-a (comida, sabor, olor): it tastes nice está bueno/rico; it smells nice huele bien/tiene un olor agradable. (g) (irón) bonito, buen: we are in a nice mess, thanks to you gracias a tí estamos metidos en un buen lío. (h) educado,-a (persona): she has nice manners es muy educada. (i) (fml) sutil (detalle, diferencia): a nice point of law un detalle legal sutil. || be (as) nice/sweet as pie ser la mar de encantador,-a; have a nice day! ¡que pase/tenga un buen día!; have a nice time pasarlo bien, divertirse; how nice! ¡qué bien!; how nice to see you! ¡no sabes cuánto me alegro de verte!; nice and early bien temprano; nice and easy (a) muy fácil. (b) con calma; nice and handy muy a mano; nice and warm calentito; nice one! (IBr) (col) ¡ estupendo!, ¡genial!; nice to meet you encantado de conocerle; nice work! ¡bien hecho!; nice work if you can get it! (IBr) (col) ¡vaya ganga! (de trabajo, etc.- dicho gen. con envidia).


1 comentarios :

  1. Interesting.

    Now, if we could live to 200, we would indeed experience changes of meaning first-hand!