Semantic Drift in Word Meanings

By Linda Mihalic

“The meaning of a word changes over time. The example everyone knows is gay, which originally meant ‘merry’, but because some people are a little too merry came to mean ‘wanton’, and because some people are a little too wanton came to mean ‘homosexual’, which is the sense almost exclusively used now.” – Linguisticus

Since 2012, in preparing pages for the Via Christa, we have noticed an alarming and rapidly accelerating trend toward semantic drift1 in word meanings — away from their original definitions — often distorted into nearly or totally the opposite. The frequency of drift is so pronounced that we now view it as a deliberate process of controlled solecistic! deviation from truth. Wherever you find a deliberate deviation from truth, you will find evil at its root.

Semantics is “the study of meanings: the historical and psychological study and the classification of changes in the signification of words or forms viewed as factors in linguistic development; a branch of semiotics2 dealing with the relations between signs and what they refer to and including theories of denotation, extension, naming, and truth.”

General semantics is “the meaning or relationship of meanings of a sign or set of signs, especially connotative meaning; the language used (as in advertising or political propaganda) to achieve a desired effect on an audience especially through the use of words with novel or dual meanings.”

Students of semantics analyze the subtle shades of meaning in words. We suggest that you regularly consult a print edition dictionary (e.g., Merriam-Webster and Roget’s Thesaurus, circa before 1969), not the online editions, which are rapidly being altered. Beware the revisons of word meanings arising from “wokeness.” Always check for the “revision” date (you can find our most recent revision date at the bottom of every page on this site).

Plato exemplified the process of defining the terms you will use to discuss any topic before you begin any discussion of it. This will help hold you to the logical foundations of any issue. Life will teach you that unless you define your meaning first, your listener or reader will apply his or her own semantic bias to it, too often resulting in mere opinion or prejudice, not in the truth.

Beware also of the perversion of word meanings that fall under the emerging classification of “semantic bleaching.”3

Etymology is the branch of linguistics that studies the history of a word “shown by tracing its development since its earliest recorded occurrence in the language where it is found, by tracing its transmission from one language to another, by analyzing it into its component parts, by identifying its cognates in other languages, or by tracing it and its cognates to a common ancestral form in an ancestral language.” So, the answer to “What does it mean?” must also include the answer to “Where did it originate?”

Etymology of semantics: “from French sémantique, applied by Michel Bréal (1883) to the psychology of language, from Greek sēmantikos, meaning ‘significant,’ from sēmainein ‘to show by sign, signify, point out, indicate by a sign,’ from sēma ‘sign, mark, token; omen, portent; constellation; grave.’” – Online Etymology Dictionary

1^ An impropriety, mistake, or incongruity; from Latin soloecismus, from Greek soloikismos, from soloikizein, to speak incorrectly, from soloikos, speaking incorrectly.

2^ Semiotics: “a general philosophical theory of signs and symbols that deals especially with their function in both artificially constructed and natural languages and composes syntactics, semantics, and pragmatics.”

3^ Semantic bleaching: adverbs used as hyperbole or exaggeration that "reduce a word's intensity, e.g. great and awesome and fantastic, amazing, awful, very, really, ultimately, and actually.”

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Linda Mihalic
1946 –
Successor to Edna Lister,
American Idealist, minister, teacher, author,
editor of The Via Christa, Chairman of the Society of the Universal Living Christ

Linda Mihalic

References “Semantic bleaching,” "Etymology," Merriam-Webster Dictionary. Accessed January 13, 2022.

“Semantic drift.” Linguisticus, accessed January 14, 2021. “Semantics,” "Etymology," Merriam-Webster Dictionary. Accessed April 22 2021.

Harper, Douglas. “Semantics,” Online Etymology Dictionary. Accessed April 22 2021. “Semiotics,” "Etymology," Merriam-Webster Dictionary. Accessed January 13, 2022.

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