Semantic Drifting: The Story of the Word "Amazing"

Semantic Drifting: The Story of the Word “Amazing”

Semantic Drifting

Words pass through time like great works of art or literature. People once winced at Nietzche’s works, considered relics of a lunatic, and now, we revere him as an intellectual icon. As with words, which rarely mean precisely what they did at their inception. The process driving their evolution is semantic drift, the way words change meaning in their lifespan. There are many ways they do this, but the least common of them is called amelioration.

Perhaps speaking to time’s usual habit to making things worse, words will often go from meaning something positive to negative, a process called degeneration. The chances for a word to escape its gloomy, miserable, or evil connotations are slim to none. But when they come to mean something cheery or positive, they undergo amelioration–and it’s amazing.

Amazing, derived from the noun maze, meant “confusing; perplexing” around the 14th century. It’s not entirely clear how it became something so unquestionably positive in the contemporary sense (“Did you see her sing? She was amazing!”). The likely culprit is the multitude of emotional contexts in which we may be “confused” or “perplexed”. For instance, we may be confused by a cruel act, but we may be equally perplexed when we see someone so talented we don’t understand it. Amazing must have been used to express awe more often over time.

Emotional words tend to be more black and white, except for truly confusing words such as these. Words like happy or sad have not strayed that far from their original meanings (happy used to mean lucky, sad meant sorrowful). But aren’t emotions like confusion and bewilderment inherently amazing… in the original sense? Does this give them the gray area for a rare semantic process like amelioration to do its unlikely and miraculous work?

Beginning the maze of semantic drift may seem daunting. But a word’s lunacy may reveal much about our own.

Melanie Falconer is a freelance writer and editor living in Los Angeles, California. Her writing mainly concerns philosophy, personal experiences, cultural commentary, and her love of the visual and performing arts. If you’d like to reach out to her, you can do so here.

Semantic Drifting: The complex journey of a word's meaning through time.

Semantic Drifting: The Story of the Word “Silly”

Semantic Drifting

Did you know the girl used to refer to both sexes? Or that awful meant even more awesome than awesome (some awe vs. full of awe)? Your brain in a choke hold right now? You can thank semantic drift. Semantic drift, a linguistics term, is the way words change meaning in their lifespan. There are many ways they do this, which are processes called wideningnarrowingmetaphormetonymysynendochedegeneration, and a few others (though they have not all been decided upon in the linguistics community).

Silly, right?

Silly is an example of degeneration–the gradual worsening of the meaning. At the beginning of the 13th century, silly was spelled “sely” and meant “happy, blissful, blessed.” It was derived from the noun, selth which meant “well-being” (as opposed to unselth which meant “misery”).  The word took on more religious meanings as “happy” people were seen as “taken care of by good.” The meaning of sely thus narrowed into: “spiritually blessed,” which also implied “innocent.”

Now, there’s that other flip side of “innocence”. When you’re innocent, you need to be taken care of. You’re dependent and can’t think of yourself. You’re kind of… stupid. This was the birth of its modern meaning–beginning in the 1500s, sely was pronounced in the contemporary fashion as “silly” and meant: “lacking good sense, empty-headed, senseless, foolish.” Sound a little crazy?

Indeed, “this is the silliest stuff that ever I heard”(1595, Shakespeare, A Midsummer Night’s Dream).