5 Words Caught in Semantic Drift

By Mark Nichol

Is it possible to simultaneously admire the vibrancy and flexibility of the English language and grumble about shifts in meaning that deprive the language of some of its richness? I know it is, because I often do so. Because of the organic nature of language, English is a victim of semantic drift — not as cataclysmic as continental drift, but detectable on the rigor scale — and I regret the loss of the far-flung flotsam.

Semantic drift is the evolution that occurs in the meaning of some words when careless, ignorant usage alters or even reverses their senses. Such change is inevitable, but allow me to mourn the loss of a word here and there, never again to be applicable to an idea or image with such crisp clarity. Here are five terms tainted by semantic drift:

1. Aggravate

The essence of aggravate is right there in the middle: grav-, the root of gravity and grave (as in “serious”; the word for the resting place of a coffin has a different etymological origin). The Latin word gravis means “heavy,” and aggravate originally literally means “to make heavy”; the original sense was “to make worse.”

But almost immediately — and naturally, because a burden is irritating — it acquired the additional sense of “exasperate.” Use of that meaning now predominates. Wordsmith H. W. Fowler proclaimed that “to make worse” is the only correct sense of aggravate; he was undoubtedly irritated (not aggravated) to know that popular usage defied his decree.

2. Bemused

The root of this word, muse, means “to think or ponder,” but it has an amusing origin; it is from a Latinate term for “snout” and became associated with cogitation from the image of lifting one’s nose in the air, perhaps to sniff a scent and consider its source. (It is apparently unrelated to, though influenced by, muse, meaning “to think,” from the name of the Muses, the Greek goddesses of the arts and sciences; this is also the origin of museum and music.)

Bemused (“confused”) is often confused for amused (“comically entertained”) because of their original similarity of meaning: Bemused literally means “thoroughly thinking,” suggesting being confused by thinking too much, whereas the literal meaning of amused is “without thought,” with the connotation of being diverted from thinking by some lighthearted entertainment. However, bemusement is serious business.

3. Nonplussed

This word, taken literally from the Latin words for no and more, originally was used in the noun form to describe a point from which one could not continue because one was perplexed. For five hundred years, that’s what the word meant. But at some point during the twentieth century, people inexplicably began to assume that it refers to the opposite state, that of being unfazed (not unphased!) or at ease, as if being plussed were a state of bewilderment and nonplussed therefore means “not bewildered.”

The antonymic meaning soon went viral, and now one is likely to be unclear about which meaning a speaker or writer has in mind. When that happens, perhaps it’s best to retire a word altogether — and fortunately in this case, at least bewildered and perplexed persist (for now) with unequivocal synonymic meaning.

4. Nostalgia

This battle was lost long ago, but the case study is interesting. Nostalgia was coined (from the first part of the Greek word for “homecoming” and the Latin suffix -algia — itself originally from Greek and meaning “pain”) in the late 1600s to refer to the literal affliction of homesickness. For two centuries, nostalgia was treated as a serious ailment suffered by soldiers and others who suffered ailments caused by a melancholic longing for home.

That clinical sense itself wasted away, and though nostalgia continued to refer to homesickness, that meaning was overtaken by the idea of a sentimental yearning for a lost state or condition, usually temporally rather than spatially irrevocable. However, I’m nostalgic about the lost meaning.

5. Voluptuous

For hundreds of years, voluptuous meant “luxurious, pleasure seeking, devoted to sensual gratification” (the Latin root is voluptas, meaning “pleasure”), but back in the early 1800s, the word came to be associated primarily with female beauty, and later the primary sense shifted to that of curvaceousness.

Here are some other words that have been affected by semantic drift.

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3 Responses to “5 Words Caught in Semantic Drift”

  • Leif G.S. Notae

    Very interesting indeed, I knew one of these. The other four were eye openers and I am glad you shared this with me. I’ll have to poke around that link soon.

  • Aheur

    “Semantic drift is the evolution that occurs in the meaning of some words when careless, ignorant usage alters or even reverses their senses.”

    This is kind of painful to read. There’s nothing “careless” or “ignorant” about linguistic change. If you personally reject change, fine, but that’s like saying human evolution occurs because of careless breeding. The words in use now are in use (and have the semantic meanings used now) because language is something that occurs naturally and evolves naturally–nothing would stop it and, again, nothing is ignorant or wrong about this.

  • Mark Nichol

    Aheur:

    It is careless and ignorant to misuse words, but it’s also the way the language evolves. I don’t reject change, though I’m ambivalent about it. I assumed that I had clearly stated my feelings about semantic drift in the first paragraph of this post.

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