Semantic Shift?

Laurence Horn laurence.horn at YALE.EDU
Tue Aug 22 04:55:51 UTC 2000


At 9:17 AM -0400 8/22/00, Kathleen Miller wrote:
>Mr. Safire is writing a special issue on Noo Yawkese and we're stuck
>with a lingusitic question. What is it called when a phrase, such as
>"get out of here", assumes a different meaning? Is it sematic shift,
>or is there another name for it?
>
>
>Kathleen E. Miller
>Research Assistant to William Safire
>The New York Times
>
>"And now here is my secret, a very simple secret: It is only with
>the heart that one can see rightly; what is essential is invisible
>to the eye."                 Antoine de Saint-Exupery

When a word or phrase changes meaning while retaining its form, this
would generally be described as an instance of semantic change.  Some
scholars would use "shift" in a narrower way to denote one variety of
semantic change.  Thus, for example, the change of GIRL to mean
'young female human' instead of the earlier 'young human' is an
instance of semantic narrowing, the change of BIRD to mean 'avian
creature' instead of the earlier 'young avian creature, young bird'
is an instance of semantic broadening, and the change of BEAD to mean
'small round object' instead of the original 'prayer' (through a
reanalysis of the phrase 'counting (one's) beads', when wooden balls
on a string were used to keep track of one's prayers) is an instance
of semantic shift or transfer.  All three of these developments fit
within the general category of semantic change.   (Some would call
all of these changes "shifts", but I find the distinction useful to
retain.)  In any case, I would expect that the sort of change you're
looking at in the history of "get out of here" would indeed count as
an instance of semantic shift, like that in the history of BEAD.

Larry
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