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.