One of the ways languages change is through semantics: the meanings of words can change. A few examples of semantic change are discussed below.
Amelioration is a type of semantic change that happens when a word’s meaning improves or becomes more positive over time.
The adjective “pretty” comes from the Old English “prættig” (West Saxon), “pretti” (Kentish), “*prettig” (Mercian) which meant “cunning, skillful, artful, wily, astute.” In the change from Old English to Middle English, “pretty” by 1400 had come to mean “manly, gallant,” and then it shifted to “attractive, skillfully made,” and then to “fine,” and then by the mid-fifteenth century came to mean “beautiful in a slight way.”
The word “nice” came into English in the twelfth century from the Old French “nice” which meant “careless, clumsy; weak; poor, needy; simple, stupid, silly, foolish” and by the late thirteenth century it had come to mean “foolish, stupid, senseless.” With regard to semantic change, it then came to mean “timid” and then by the late fourteenth century it meant “fussy, fastidious” and by 1400 it meant “dainty, delicate.” It the 1500s, “nice” came to mean “precise, careful” and by 1769 it meant “agreeable, delightful” and by 1830 it had come to mean “kind, thoughtful.”
In a similar fashion, the noun “niceness” meant “folly, foolish behavior” in the 1520s and by the 1670s it had come to mean “exactness” and finally, by 1809, “pleasantness.”
The word “knight” comes from the Old English “cniht” which meant “boy, youth, servant, attendant.” About 1100, “knight” was expanded to mean “military follower of a king or other superior.” During the Hundred Years War, it began to be used in a specific military sense and by the sixteenth century it became a rank in the nobility.
A more recent change can be seen in “geek” which in 1916 was listed as U.S. carnival and circus slang meaning “sideshow freak.” The word appears to be a variant of “geck” which in the 1510s meant “a fool, dupe, simpleton.” By 1983, “geek” was used as a slang term referring to students who lacked social graces but were obsessed with computers and new technology. In the twenty-first century, “geek” has expanded to refer to someone with special knowledge, not limited to computers.
Pejoration is a type of semantic change that happens when a word’s meaning becomes more negative.
Notorious came into English in 1548 and initially meant “publicly known.” It came from Medieval Latin “notorius” which meant “well-known, commonly known.” During the seventeenth century it began to acquire a negative connotation from its frequent association with derogatory nouns.
Awful originally meant “worthy of awe.” The word first appears in English during the fourteenth century as “agheful” meaning “worthy of respect or fear” and replaced the Old English “egefull.” The word “aghe” was an early form of “awe.” Pejoration is seen by 1809 as “awful” comes to mean “very bad” and then by 1818 it comes to mean “exceedingly bad.”
The word “hussy” in the 1520s simply meant “mistress of a household, housewife” and was an alteration of the Middle English “husewif.” Over time, the meaning broadened to mean “any woman or girl” and by 1650 it was being used in a more negative manner to refer to any woman or girl who showed casual or improper behavior. By the late eighteenth century the word had a general derogatory sense.
Another example of perjorative semantic change can be seen in “wench.” In the twelfth century, “wenchel” meant child and by the thirteenth century it had become “wenche” meaning “girl or young woman.” “Wench” then came to refer to “servant, particularly servant girls” and by the mid-fourteenth century is was being used in the sense of a “woman of loose morals, mistress.”
“Mistress” came into English from the French “maistresse” in the fourteenth century and referred to a woman who was in charge of a household or a child. By the early fifteenth century it was being used to refer to the “kept woman of a married man.”