Semantics is the branch of linguistics concerned with meaning in language. Students of semantics trace the ways that words and phrases change meanings over time.
Semantic change—also called semantic drift, semantic shift, semantic development and semantic progression— takes different forms.
One type of change is amelioration: the development of a more favorable meaning for a word.
Take, for example, quell. In current usage, banks move to “quell inflation.” Governments issue proclamations to “quell fears” among the populace. The National Guard is called in to “quell a riot,” usually with no intentions of harming the rioters. In Old English poetry, on the other hand, when a warrior “quelled” his opponent, he killed him.
Quell is a word that has undergone semantic amelioration, going from the meaning “to kill” to referring to less lethal means of putting an end to something.
Here are some other examples of amelioration.
pretty has gone through the stages of “cunning, crafty,” “clever, skillful,” “cleverly or elegantly made” to “attractive and pleasing in appearance.”
fun has gone from “an act of fraud or deception” to “light-hearted pleasure, enjoyment, or amusement.”
fond has passed. through the meanings “foolish, silly to foolishly credulous or trusting,” “mad, deranged, deficient in intellect” and “foolishly tender, over-affectionate, doting” to “affectionate, loving, tender.”
grin as a verb meant, “to draw back the lips and display the teeth as an indication of pain or anger,” and as a noun meant, “an unnatural smile or an exaggerated smile in the manner of vulgar merriment.” Now, “to grin” is “to smile broadly.” As a noun, a grin is just a big smile that may show the teeth.
Note: The other meanings of grin (implying ignorance or threat) can still be found in contemporary writing, but in general usage, a grin is merely a broad smile.
Despite getting about three hours of sleep most nights, he flashed an easy grin.
It shows him on her lap, a round-faced, bright-eyed boy with a mischievous grin.
His toothy grin and blond mop-top became the face of the missing-child movement.
cute is a shortening of acute and began life with the meaning of acute: “keen, sharp-witted, shrewd, clever.” These attributes are not negative, but semantic shift has led to the much softer qualities “attractive, pretty, charming.” Cute is usually applied to women, children, little animals, and pretty objects. In some expressions, however, cute may be sliding toward the negative, as in “Don’t get cute with me.”
I thought she was cute, and I guess I was relieved that she seemed like my type.
The game turned into a show, like the opening ceremony but without the cute kid.
They tend to sell baby bunnies at the pet stores because they’re small and cute.
I left wearing a cute scarlet crocheted hat, made by the girl who sold it to me.
Possibly the all-time champ of semantic change from negative to blandly positive is the adjective nice.
Entering English from French—which got it from Latin nescius (ignorant)—nice has been used with an amazing number of meanings, including, but not limited to, the following:
foolish, silly, simple, ignorant
extravagant, showy, ostentatious
fastidious, fussy, difficult to please
faint-hearted, timorous, cowardly, unmanly
tender, delicate, fragile
Merriam-Webster provides three current definitions for nice:
giving pleasure or joy, good and enjoyable
attractive or of good quality
kind, polite, and friendly
Examples of these uses:
The Yellow Trail includes a steady rise and a nice view when the trees are thin.
She was served a nice roll stuffed with fried tofu, asparagus, onion and carrot.
I’m a nice guy to anyone I meet, until they show me they don’t deserve niceness.
This tendency for nice to mean anything and nothing was apparent by the end of the eighteenth century. Here is Henry Tilney remarking on Catherine Morland’s having remarked that she thinks The Castle of Udolfo to be “the nicest book in the world.”
“Very true,” said Henry, “and this is a very nice day, and we are taking a very nice walk, and you are two very nice young ladies. Oh! It is a very nice word indeed! It does for everything. Originally perhaps it was applied only to express neatness, propriety, delicacy, or refinement—people were nice in their dress, in their sentiments, or their choice. But now every commendation on every subject is comprised in that one word.”—Northanger Abbey, Jane Austen (written in 1798 or 1799)
Semantic amelioration is not as common as semantic deterioration, in which a formerly inoffensive word acquires a negative meaning. I’ll have a look at that kind of shift another time.