Wednesday, 13 January 2016

Trends in the changing meaning-of-words/ consciousness

Owen Barfield's work on the evolution of consciousness stemmed from his observation (e.g. in History in English Words, or Poetic Diction) that words began as 'poetic', broad, complex and containing of 'references to inner states; and had become narrower, simpler, more 'literal'.

His favourite example was 'spirit' which originally contained meanings similar to ghosts and non-material phenomena and also simultaneously meant 'wind'. One complex word meaning many things together is replaced by several separate words each of which are more specific.

Another trend in the changing meaning of words that I have noticed is for words to lose their force and strength.

'Anon'  - as in 'I will do it anon' - for Shakespeare meant immediately, and for us means sometime or another (and perhaps never).

'Naughty' - for Shakespeare meant really wicked, while for us it means a bit mischievous.

More recently:

'Fantastic' and 'Fabulous' used to mean beyond comprehension and beyond belief, but they now mean no more than a generic positive endorsement.

"Vile" used to meant utterly contemptible, but now is 'something I personally happen to dislike'.

Presumably, this phenomenon is an example of habituation or tolerance; when the same dose of any strong stimulus will, when repeated and repeated without catastrophic outcome, progressively lose its effect.


radiobeloved said...

Also, consider the change in meaning for some words from an external objective circumstance to an internal, self-directed sentiment: embarrass and frustrate come to mind.

Nicholas Fulford said...

The diminishment of a word's power is inversely proportional to the frequency of its use.

Take any classic obscenity: A child understands that a word has power based on the reaction of adults to its use. The attraction of such words is the power they have, but as soon as everyone peppers their speech with them they lose all their potency.

When my 88 year old mother uses one of those words it has tremendous power, but then she probably uses such a word once every two or three years. When I hear her use one, it means it is time to duck and cover because the end of the world is at hand.

radiobeloved said...

I suspect that the rise of marketing as a dominant force in the press has contributed to the degradation of language. Why have something "best" when it can be "spectacular", "awesome" (a particularly egregious degradation), or "best of class" (often a contrived guile)? Of course, a "glamour" always was a fairy spell...