Starved with the cold, and linguistic inflation

I have two new posts up at Macmillan Dictionary Blog. The first, Starved with the cold, looks at how this expression (which has currency in Ireland) illustrates the phenomenon of semantic narrowing. This is where a word’s meaning narrows to a more specific domain:

Starve is descended from the Old English word steorfan, meaning die – without implicit reference to the means of death . . . . The story of starve illustrates a common semantic process – known as narrowing, restriction, or specialisation – whereby a word’s field of reference contracts. For example, accident used to mean any occurrence, before it took on the more restricted sense of something that happens by chance, then something unfortunate that happens by chance: happening to happenstance to mishap. (Sometimes the different senses exist in parallel.) In the 20th century, accident gained a still narrower meaning: a child whose conception was not planned.

Other words that have undergone narrowing include undertaker, deer, girl, affection, engine, science, and meat, all of which appear in the post.


Is linguistic inflation insanely awesome? seems to have struck a chord, maybe because the practice is, well, unbelievably popular at the moment. Here’s an excerpt:

Inflation lies behind the popular use of such words as genius, epic, awesome, totally, and incredible. What they mean is often more modest than their traditional senses suggest: genius means clever, epic is impressive, incredible is surprising. Such is our need to imbue our words with force and significance, that we use hyperbole to entice people to pay attention . . . . Numbers offer a convenient way to observe the scale of this phenomenon. Take the phrase “give 110%”, which is common in sporting and business contexts. Once it became a cliché, people started feeling they had to give 200% or 1000% or even 10,000% . . .

Anthony Burgess thought inflation was a debasement of language, but I think his fears were a bit exaggerated. You can read the rest of the post to find out why, and to see some incredibly epic examples of linguistic inflation.

My older posts are in the Macmillan Dictionary Blog archive.

8 Responses to Starved with the cold, and linguistic inflation

  1. Marc Leavitt says:

    The original sense of starve going back in time is still exemplified in the modern German cognate “sterben.” for example, If I say “Ich sterbe vor Hunger” – “I’m starving from hunger,” death is implicit.

    Hyperbole is one of the oldest storytelling devices we have, and a wonderful mnemonic device for oral transmission. I think the Grammar Nazis serve a useful purpose; they give us a chance to laugh, and humor is an enormous, stupendous, marvelous, awesome, out-of-this-world, miraculous, gigantic, world-shaking, death-defying, larger-than-life quality. In fact, it’s totally crazy! Beyond words! Non pareil. Unique!

  2. languagehat says:

    In Ireland, especially the northern province of Ulster, you will sometimes hear people say starved or starving to mean cold or freezing instead of the usual very hungry.

    I don’t understand the last part (“freezing instead of the usual very hungry”); could you elaborate?

  3. Stan says:

    Marc: Yes, I mention the German cognate (and Dutch sterven) in the post. There’s a great tradition of hyperbole in mythology and storytelling. I hope to write more about that aspect of it another time.

    Hat: I mean that starved and starving are sometimes used to mean “cold” or “suffering from the cold” rather than “very hungry”, which is their more common meaning.

  4. Shaun Downey says:

    Again more evidence of the evolution of languages. It is a certainty that some of our usages will seem as strange to future readers as using pragmatic to mean officious or dogmatic seems to us.

  5. alexmccrae1546 says:

    This particular discussion got me pondering the familiar expression, or more precisely, ancient, folksy adage, “starve a cold, feed a fever”. I’ve also heard of the reverse antidote offered up, as well, i.e., “feed a cold , starve a fever”.

    Curiously, in managing to uncover some (alleged) online ‘expert’ medical opinions on the subject, the strong consensus appeared to be that neither the feeding, nor the starving actions for either condition proved to be convincing remedies for your standard cold, or fever.

    Now, taking a couple of aspirins, drinking lots of fluids (not of the potent potable variety), and getting plenty of bed-rest (and calling your GP in the morning), may be a much wiser plan of action. Just sayin’.

  6. Stan says:

    Shaun: Indeed it is. What’s an everyday idiom or catchphrase for us might be a real head-scratcher in a few decades’ time.

    Alex: Some folk remedies are effective, some aren’t, and it often depends on the case in question. The origins of ‘starve/feed a cold/fever’ are obscure, and there doesn’t appear to be much evidence in support of either approach.

  7. Brendan Strong says:

    Hi Stan,
    Thanks so much for this post. My grandmother, from Limerick city, used to tell a story about the first time she met her future sister in law, from rural Donegal. It’s a pretty good example of the use “starved with the cold”.
    It actually was a dark and stormy night. My grandmother, grandfather and great aunt (grandfather’s sister) had a big meal of stew. The two women eyeballing each other suspiciously as my grandfather tried to keep a light conversation, but then angered himself talking about politics or something.
    After dinner, he was going to take them all for a drink to a pub just across from the house. My grandmother said it was too cold to go out, so she and her future sister-in-law stayed in the house. Then my great aunt said:
    “You must be starved, we should go into the kitchen.”
    My grandmother stared at her in disbelief. She thought her belly would burst, and this woman was offering her more food. My grandmother said “No thank you” and stayed in the sitting room. When my grandfather returned, he explained that actually, she had meant “You must be freezing”, and the reason to go to the kitchen was it was the warmest and stuffiest room in the house, which would take the chill away from your bones.

  8. Stan says:

    Brendan: A good story well told, and a great example of the phrase in use. Thank you! I hope they had a good laugh about it when the confusion was disspelled.

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