Change of meaning

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In addition to word formation and borrowing, change of meaning is one of the three main processes of change of name, the subject of historical onomasiology . The change of meaning can go as far as the reversal of meaning .

Types of semantic change in meaning

Important types of changes in meaning are described below.

Metaphor, metonymy, synecdoche

Metaphor is a change of meaning based on similarity. Example: mouse "rodent" → mouse "computer accessories"

Metonymy is a change in meaning based on “touch”. Two things typically occur in the world at the same time, and the name of one carries over to the other. Example: "Material" → "Product" (from the glass as raw material to the drinking vessel made from it).

In addition to metonymy, some use the synecdoche as a separate type of change in meaning , which is based on a “part-whole relationship”.

Narrowing and expanding of meaning

Narrowing of meaning (specialization) is (according to Leonard Bloomfield , Andreas Blank and Joachim Grzega) a change in meaning in which the generic term becomes a sub-term. In other words, the scope of the meaning becomes smaller because further, specializing features have been added to the original content.

Extension of meaning (generalization, amplification) is the opposite process.


  • Old English dēor denotes the wild animal. In New English the word deer only refers to the stag and the roe (narrowing of meaning).
  • Old High German tior and Middle High German animal denote the wild animal. In New High German, animal is a term for all types of animals (expansion of meaning).

Improvement or deterioration of meaning

See also deterioration of meaning (pejoration, pejoration)

Improvement or deterioration of meaning leads to a change in the linguistic (stylistic) level. For example, a word used euphemistically can take over the originally “bad” properties of the word represented and thereby sink one level lower (meaning deterioration - see also euphemism treadmill ). But the reverse, an improvement in meaning, is also possible. The deterioration of meaning is also called pejoration , the improvement of meaning melioration .

Standard example deterioration in the meaning of women's designations
Old High German Middle High German New High German

young girl


young servant, maid (functionalization)

Whore :

Prostitutes (from the 16th century) ( social devaluation through sexualization )

wīb: ( marriage ) wife wīp: (wife) wife Woman :

sloppy, dissolute woman ( swear word ) (social devaluation)

"(Young) woman as an object of sexual desire as a (potential) sexual partner" ( colloquial ) ( sexualization )


Mistress, noble woman


married, socially superior woman

Woman :

Wife (functionalization related to marriage);

Woman (social devaluation)


young mistress, mistress, lady, woman of state

vröu (we) līn:

Girls of lower class (social devaluation);

file whore , whore (social devaluation through sexualization )

Miss :

unmarried woman (functionalization related to marriage);

also waitress / service (functionalization and social devaluation)

later loss of Fräulein (from around 1975 through feminist language criticism )


young, unmarried woman ( Virgin Mary )


young, unmarried woman (Virgin Mary)

Maid :

Domestic / farm workers for rough, simple work (social devaluation)

Mademoiselle (French):

high, venerable, young unmarried woman

Mademoiselle (early New High German):

high standing young woman

Mamsell :

1. Simple kitchen workers (social devaluation)

2. Prostitutes (sexualization)

More recent approaches (e.g. that of Andreas Blank 1997) refrain from improving and deteriorating meaning as separate types of meaning change, because the question of “better” and “worse” cannot be answered neutrally; it is assumed that all cases can be classified in the categories mentioned above. This also applies to the standard example above. Others are of the opinion that the reduction is only possible in the "vast majority" of the examples.

Causes and Spread

There are many reasons for the change in meaning. Among other things, causes can be:

  • Need for euphemistic language
  • Striving for pictorial expression
  • The need for a new name for something previously unknown
  • Disappearance of certain objects or actions from everyday life
  • Elimination of the originally existing designated objects or actions due to further development of the company
  • Further development of science that leads to the elimination of partial meanings
  • Psychological properties of the word (for example, a decline in the stylistic level in one area may lead to the word disappearing in another area.)
  • Change through phonetic changes

A new meaning often appears first in a specific group of speakers and gradually spreads. The old meaning is often suppressed, but it can also continue to exist in parallel.


  • Sascha Bechmann: Language change - change in meaning . UTB , 2016, ISBN 978-3-8252-4536-8 .
  • Andreas Blank : Principles of the lexical change of meaning using the example of the Romance languages (=  supplements to the magazine for Romance philology . No. 285 ). Niemeyer, Tübingen 1997, ISBN 3-484-52285-2 , chap. III: The nature and process of the change in meaning ( reprinted by Walter-de-Gruyter-Verlag in 2012 in the Google book search).
  • Leonard Bloomfield : Language. Holt, Rinehart and Winston, New York et al. 1933.
  • Joachim Grzega : Name change: how, why, what for? A contribution to English and general onomasiology. Winter, Heidelberg 2004, ISBN 3-8253-5016-9 (also: Eichstätt - Ingolstadt, Universität, habilitation paper, 2003/2004).
  • Gerd Fritz: Introduction to historical semantics (= Germanistic workbooks. 42). Max Niemeyer, Tübingen 2005, ISBN 3-484-25142-5 .
  • Gerd Fritz: Historical Semantics (= Metzler Collection. Vol. 313). 2nd updated edition. Metzler, Stuttgart et al. 2006, ISBN 3-476-12313-8 .
  • Rudi Keller , Ilja Kirschbaum: Change of meaning. An introduction. de Gruyter, Berlin et al. 2003, ISBN 3-11-017667-X .
  • Stephen Ullmann : Basic features of semantics. The meaning from a linguistic point of view. de Gruyter, Berlin 1967, pp. 159–237: Chapter IV: Historical semantics.

Web links

Wiktionary: Meaning change  - explanations of meanings, word origins, synonyms, translations

Individual evidence

  1. For the rhetorical figures see z. B .: Hadumod Bußmann (Ed.): Lexicon of Linguistics. 3rd, updated and expanded edition. Kröner, Stuttgart 2002, ISBN 3-520-45203-0 .
  2. Online Etymology dictionary: deer
  3. See today's meaning of deer in the LEO dictionary.
  4. Duden online: Animal , see information on origin.
  5. Damaris Nübling: From the “maiden” to the “maid”, from the “girl” to the “prostitute”: The pejoration of women's designations as a distorting mirror of culture and as an effect of male gallantry? In: Yearbook for German Language History. 2011, pp. 344-362.
  6. Woman. In: Duden. Retrieved January 5, 2018 .
  7. ^ So Volker Harm: Introduction to Lexicology. WBG, Darmstadt 2015 (Introduction to German Studies), ISBN 978-3-534-26384-4 , p. 125