When I was young, I was a very silly girl. Not in the familiar, modern sense, of course, but in the long-lost meaning of those two words in English: a happy child.
Semantic change – words taking on new meanings over time – is a fascinating garden path of surprising twists and turns. And it’s not only a fitting focus for linguistics nerds, either. Travelling back down the path of language change can lead language learners to the crossover points that tie foreign languages to our own. It can be thoroughly eye-opening to learn of the double lives that words in related languages have come to lead. Ultimately, comparing cognates also bolsters our armoury in the quest to gain a deeper understanding of vocabulary.
A Worsening Situation…
Take silly, for example. Its rather dramatic journey from happy to daft can be traced back to the Old English form sælig. Back then, it covered a range of happy nuances from happy, to blessed, to fortunate. Germanists might recognise its family heritage here: it is cognate with the German word selig, which today means blissfully happy. So what happened to poor old silly in English?
Historical linguistics studying semantic change identify several broad flavours of meaning drift. What silly shows is pejoration, the application of a more and more negative meaning over time. It happens frequently in the history of words: knave is a rather old-fashioned word for a rogue, but originally just meant a boy, or servant. Of course, the opposite – amelioration – can happen too; just think of how bad, wicked and sick have been used in recent decades. And knight went the opposite way of knave, starting out as a mere boy but coming to take on quite haughty responsibilties. German cognate Knecht, of course, knew its station – it remains quite a lowly word.
On a slightly dispiriting side note, from a social standpoint, pejoration does seem to affect words for women with some degree of disproportion in English. For example, hussy, mistress, tart and wench all started out as quite neutral, uninsulting words. Language is the mirror of human culture, whether that be its pleasant or ugly side.
Straight and Narrow
Then, of course, we have girl. Back in Middle English times, the word referred to a child of any gender. Now, it is quite exclusively a female designation. And that is a classic case of narrowing of meaning from a general category to a more specific one.
Although cognates of girl don’t pop up in any high frequency vocab in related languages, there is an amusing, more obscure German analogue in Göre – a cheeky young child. Göre has retained the gender-vagueness English lost, but has gained the slightly negative connotation of naughty (pejoration again!).
Learning More About Semantic Change
Taking a deep dive into semantic change is a fascinating way to work backwards in a language, revealing the maze of cross-language touch points. When the changes are as dramatic as the handful of words above, it can be fun tracing out this secret life of cognates.
Of course, pejoration, amelioration and narrowing are just a couple of a range of recognised processes of semantic change. To fall down this very addictive rabbit hole, check out Lyle Campbell’s chapter on the subject in his Historical Linguistics primer. The Wikipedia article on semantic change also gives a really helpful overview.
And if you find yourself hunting etymologies but lack access to behemoth resources like the OED, then Wiktionary is, as ever, always on hand. That site is fast becoming a second home…