Vocabulary and semantic change

Words change meaning over time. Some terms that used to have one meaning fifty years ago have developed very different meanings now. Often, slang terms are among those quickest to change, and we can see this in examples such as sick, wicked and gay, all of which have undergone fairly substantial shifts in meaning over relatively short periods of time.

This extract is from an article in The Independent in 2007, where Philip Hensher argues that recent changes in meaning to the word gay have caused it to become offensive to the gay people who once fought to make the word their own:

An extraordinary confrontation between deliberate offence and a challenge to bigotry took place a few months ago over the disc jockey Chris Moyles. The specific incident took place when he rejected a ringtone, live on air, with the comment, "I don't want that one, it's gay." Listeners who objected to the hard-fought word "gay" being used to mean "rubbish" were given this bizarre excuse: "The committee acknowledged that this use of the word 'gay' could cause offence to some listeners. However, the committee believed that Chris Moyles, when using the word, had meant no offence to gay people. He was not being homophobic in his use of the word." Link to full article

How would you go about investigating how a word has changed its meaning over time? Where would you look for definitions and usages of a word from many years ago?

Some ideas are suggested below.

Project aims

  • To explore the changing meanings of words over time.
  • To consider the ways in which people respond to changing word meanings.

Project outline

  • Identify a word that has changed meaning over time (sick, wicked, gay, heavy, bad, for example).
  • Ask different age groups (teens, twenties, thirties and up to the oldest age group you can find) what they understand as the word’s primary meanings.
  • Trace the usage of the word over time using a web-based corpus such as Google N-Gram.


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