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It Is Not Uncommon To Hear Someone

It is not uncommon to hear someone chortling, or speaking about utopian ideals, or discussing the latest fashionable styles, or talking about a pamphlet they received in the mail. A fact unbeknownst to many people speaking the English language is that the words in italics in the previous sentence were first created by an author for a piece of literature, and that a great number of the words we use in our daily conversations actually originated from novels. From ancient books like Homer’s The Odyssey, to more recent ones like J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series, these esteemed novels have lent the English language several hundreds of words that speakers use commonly in everyday life. However, in most cases, the meaning of the word as it was originally written will have changed. This phenomenon is known as semantic progression, and is common among words such as these, because of the evolution of the context and usage of the word. Semantic progression is not the same as polysemy or heterosemy, because in some instances the meaning of the word has changed drastically, sometimes seemingly having no connection at all with how it was first intended to be used. Problem statement

Many of the words usually used in daily English conversations have originated from works of literature. A lot of these words have gone through some form of semantic change, and most of these words’ semantic origins have been left unstudied.


The objectives of this paper are:

1. To discover some of the words used by English speakers that have originated from literature and have experienced semantic change.

2. To find out the original meanings of the words as intended by it’s author.

3. To ascertain which type of semantic change has occurred in the chosen words.


There were a few limitations faced while writing this research paper. The first was that only a very few number of words could be analyzed for this paper, due to constraints on word limit and page number. Also, this paper only features words that are relatively common in the English language, so there was a limitation in the scope of words chosen to be analyzed.

Literature review

Semantic progression (also known as semantic shift or change), is defined by Werth (1974) as: “A lexical item hitherto associated with a semantic A, comes to be associated with the new but related configuration A’ which may co-exist with or replace A”. In other words, semantic change is the evolution in the meaning of a word from one point in time to another. The change is strictly related to the meanings associated with the word, as opposed to changes in morphology, phonology, etc. The meaning of a word is constantly fluid, with individuals using certain words to mean different things on a whim. A semantic change occurs when a person, or group of people, begin using a word with a different intention of meaning when compared to it’s denotative meaning. As the new meaning of the word becomes more widespread and established among society, the word eventually keeps its new meaning, and in a lot of cases, replaces its original meaning.

Semantic change occurs due to a variety of different factors. The two main reasons for the occurrence of semantic change are linguistic and extra-linguistic factors (Robbin, 2013). In the realm of the English language, certain patterns of the development of the language have emerged over the history of its usage. This contributes significantly to the linguistic factors of semantic change, where continual interdependence of words between language and speech cause their meanings to be changed. One of the clearest examples of this phenomenon occurring is in ellipses, where a phrase consisting of two words is gradually eclipsed in meaning by one of the words in the phrase. Ultimately the phrase can be understood using just the one word. For example, the phrase ‘propose a marriage’ can now be understood by simply saying ‘propose’.

On the other hand, extra-linguistic factors make up the majority of the occurrence of semantic change. According to Traugott Dasher (2004), extra-linguistic factors include changes in the social, political, cultural, technological, or economic subtexts of the word itself. This means that over time, as objects and notions have developed and changed, so too have their meanings and the concepts associated with them. Robbin (2013) writes that “the extra-linguistic causes of semantic change are connected with the development of the human mind as it moulds to reality to conforms to its needs”. An example is in the word ‘pen’. It was derived by the Latin ‘penna’, which signifies the feather of a bird. Seeing as people used to write using feathers and ink, the name transferred to quills, and later, to the modern instrument that is used for writing today.

There are several types of semantic progression that exist in language. These are divided into two main types, which are semasiological shifts and onomasiological shifts (Geeraerts, 2010). The semasiological shift is from the point of view of logic, whereby only the result of the semantic change itself is observed, and then studied. Semasiological innovations provide new meanings and concepts to already existing words, and merely create new applications to current lexical items. Semasiological shifts are further divided into two parts, which are the changes occurring in denotative meaning and in connotative meaning. The types of semantic change that can occur in denotative meanings are specialization (borrowing of meaning), generalization (widening of meaning), and branching (coexistence of new and original meanings, resulting in a polysemous relationship). On the other hand, the semantic changes occurring in connotative meanings are pejoration (acquiring a negative deterioration of meaning) and amelioration (acquiring a positive uplifting of meaning).

In the onomasiological side of semantic change, it focuses more on providing an existing concept with a new or alternative lexical item to express its meaning (Geeraerts, 2010). This means that onomasiological innovations pair up concepts to words in ways which have not been done before, and a transfer of meaning occurs. This takes place in the form of metaphors (meaning transfer due to similarity between words), eponyms (derived from the names of people, places, etc.), personification (assigning human traits to objects), euphemisms (substitution of words for less expressive ones), hyperboles (exaggeration of meaning), and litotes (understatement of meaning). Research methodology

For this research, the quantitative research method was chosen. The researcher utilized the Internet to find English words that were derived from various works of literature. 10 words were chosen, and each word was analyzed for its original, intended meaning, it’s current meaning, as well as how the word has changed and the type of semantic change that has occurred.

Findings and Discussion

The following are the 10 words chosen and their semantic analysis:

1. Nerd: the word ‘nerd’ is one that has become increasingly popular in recent years, with many declaring themselves proud nerds and even wearing clothing emblazoned with said word across the chest. What many do not know, however, is that the word ‘nerd’ was first recorded as appearing in If I Ran the Zoo by Dr. Seuss, published in 1950. In it’s original meaning, a nerd was an imaginary creature which the narrator, Gerald McGrew, wished to collect. It was first used with its current meaning of “a bookish, awkward, and overly intelligent person with little to no social skills” the year after by Newsweek magazine, and the new meaning with its negative connotations has spread ever since. This word underwent a pejorative semantic change.

2. Mentor: a ‘mentor’ is a wise, trusted person to look up to and follow. However, this was not always the case. Shea (1997) writes that the word ‘mentor’ originated from a character in Homer’s Odyssey, aptly named Mentor. In the epic poem from the 8th century BC, Mentor was responsible for overseeing and guiding Odysseus’ son, Telemachus. Even though Mentor turned out to be a dim old man, the goddess Athena assumed the form of Mentor to escort Telemachus on his quest to find his father. Hence, the current definition of ‘an experienced and trusted adviser’ was born. This word is now an eponym.

3. Syphilis: the term ‘syphilis’ is one more commonly heard in biology classes, as it is defined as “A chronic bacterial disease that is contracted chiefly by infection during sexual intercourse, but also congenitally by infection of a developing fetus”. Now how does a sexually transmitted disease have anything to do with literature? Well, the word was coined by Italian physician and poet Girolamo Fracastoro, who wrote a poem titled Syphilis or The French Disease (1530). The poem was about a shepherd called Syphilus, who was the first to contract syphilis itself (more commonly known at the time as the French Disease). This word is also an eponym.

4. Serendipity: the word ‘serendipity’ is one that is not commonly used in everyday speech, but is defined as “the occurrence and development of events by chance in a happy or beneficial way”. In other words, a instance of serendipity is a pleasant coincidence or surprise. It was created in 1754 by the Gothic author Horace Walpole, who had gotten inspiration from a Persian fairy tale titled The Three Princes of Serendip. The princes in the story kept making valuable discoveries by accident during their journeys. This word is an eponym.

5. Nymphet: upon mention of the word ‘nymphet’, many would think of the mythological creature said to embody alluring maidens and inhabit wooded forests. The actual meaning is not far off, with the word being coined by the author Vladimir Nabokov in his highly controversial novel, Lolita (1955). The story tells the tale of a middle aged man named Humbert Humbert, who develops a love and sexual passion for a 12-year-old girl he nicknames as Lolita. According to Margeson (2012), Humbert refers to girls between the ages of 9 to 14 as nymphets, in reference to the nymphs of Greek mythology. Now, it is defined as a sexually mature adolescent girl. This word underwent the specialization form of semantic change.

6. Robot: robots are becoming more and more commonplace, and sooner or later robots will be a part of our daily lives. The term ‘robot’ was coined by Czech author and journalist Karel Capek in his 1920 play, Rossum’s Universal Robots. The story is about a biotechnology company creating soulless workers (or robots) that eventually took over the world. Capek came up with ‘robot’ from the Czech ‘robota’, meaning ‘forced labour’ (Flatow, 2011). This led to the modern-day meaning of robot. This word went through the branching process of semantic change, because both its current and original meanings are still in use.

7. Yahoo: most people nowadays would only associate the word ‘yahoo’ with the popular website sharing the same name. However, the first ever usage of ‘yahoo’ was in Gulliver’s Travels (1726) by Jonathan Swift, referring to a race of boorish humans in the story (Tearle, 2013). The word then went on to mean ‘a rude, noisy, or violent person’, which is one of it’s definitions today. This word underwent generalization of meaning.

8. Blatant: the word ‘blatant’ was invented by Edmund Spenser, a poet in Elizabethan England who first used it in his poem The Faerie Queene, written in the 1590s. Spenser’s ‘Blatant beast’ referred to a thousand-tongued monster representing slander or calumny, which is quite distant to its meaning today. Over time, the word ‘blatant’ derived the meaning of ‘clamourous, offensive to the ear’, and only in the 19th century did it obtain its meaning of ‘conspicuous, unashamedly’. This word went through the generalization form of semantic change.

9. Pandemonium: the word ‘pandemonium’ currently means ‘wild and noisy disorder or confusion, uproar’, but this was not what it always meant. The word was coined by John Milton in his 1667 epic poem Paradise Lost. In it, Pandemonium referred to Satan’s palace and capital after rebelling against God. Milton combined the Greek words ‘pan’, meaning ‘all’, and ‘daimōn’, meaning ‘demon’, to form ‘pandemonium’. After the poem’s initial publication, the word went on to refer to places that were full of sin, and later on to mean places that were loud and chaotic. It acquired it’s current meaning in the 19th century. This word is another example of an eponym.

10. Cyberspace: this is the most recent word to enter the English language out of all the other words analyzed. ‘Cyberspace’ was first used by cyberpunk author William Gibson, in his science fiction novel Neuromancer (1984). In the context of the book, ‘cyberspace’ was defined as “a consensual hallucination experienced daily by billions of legitimate operators, in every nation… A graphic representation of data abstracted from the banks of every computer in the human system” (pp. 64). It’s current meaning has stayed quite true to Gibson’s definition, with the Oxford Dictionary defining it as “the notional environment in which communication over computer networks occurs”. This word is a metaphor of its original meaning. Conclusion

A large number of the words we use in our daily conversations originated from works of literature, many of them dating back centuries. Studying the original meanings of these words and tracing their development through history is fascinating, and many of them show clear signs of their origins. For further studies, it would be recommended to focus on words originating from specific authors, such as William Shakespeare, Lewis Carroll, or Charles Dickens. Also, a larger number of words could be studied to discern a presence of a pattern in their semantic change.

Freelance Writer

I’m a freelance writer with a bachelor’s degree in Journalism from Boston University. My work has been featured in publications like the L.A. Times, U.S. News and World Report, Farther Finance, Teen Vogue, Grammarly, The Startup, Mashable, Insider, Forbes, Writer (formerly Qordoba), MarketWatch, CNBC, and USA Today, among others.