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The Basics of English Linguistics Vol.4 - English Vocabulary Ⅱ(Pejoration and Amelioration) -

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English Language

Contents

1. Pejoration

A historical shift from the negative to positive meanings in a word.
"silly" is an example.
Let's see the meanings and the origin on Oxford English Dictionary.

1-1. The Meanings

1 Having or showing a lack of common sense or judgement; absurd and foolish.
   1.1 Ridiculously trivial or frivolous.
   1.2 [as complement] Used to convey that an activity or process has been engaged in to such a degree that someone is no longer capable of thinking or acting sensibly.
2 archaic(especially of a woman, child, or animal) helpless; defenceless.
3 Cricket [attributive] Denoting fielding positions very close to the batsman. Source: Oxford English Dictionary

1-2. The Origin

Late Middle English(in the sense ‘deserving of pity or sympathy’): alteration of dialect seely ‘happy’, later ‘innocent, feeble’, from a West Germanic base meaning ‘luck, happiness’.
The sense ‘foolish’ developed via the stages ‘feeble’ and ‘unsophisticated, ignorant’. Source: Oxford English Dictionary

1-3. The Details

"silly" means something negative in Present-Day English but it originally has a positive meaning.
Here is historical changes.

lucky, happy, blessed
=> pious, innocent
=> unworldly
=> pitiable, miserable, feeble
=> foolish

In Old English age, this word used to refer to the noble such as a king who was lucky and happy.
Those people came to be seen as happy and blessed by the God.
Such happy people were generally pious and innocent.
Such people began to be thought of as unworldly and they were troubled by those around.
People viewed them as pitiable, miserable and feeble.
Someone miserable tended to be thoughtless, which people finally came to consider as foolish.

Here is the same examples below.

Words Original Meanings Current Meanings
knave Old English cnafa ‘boy, servant’, of West Germanic origin; related to German Knabe ‘boy’ A dishonest or unscrupulous man
villain The person or thing responsible for all of the trouble or harm in a particular situation (in a film, novel, or play) a character whose evil actions or motives are important to the plot
cunning Middle English: perhaps from Old Norse kunnandi ‘knowledge’, from kunna ‘know’(related to can), or perhaps from Middle English cunne, an obsolete variant of can. The original sense was ‘(possessing) erudition or skill’ and had no implication of deceit; the sense ‘deceitfulness’ dates from late Middle English Having or showing skill in achieving one's ends by deceit or evasion

2. Amelioration

A historical shift from the positive to negative meanings.
"nice" is an example.
Let's see the meanings and the origin on Oxford English Dictionary.

2-1. The Meanings

1 Giving pleasure or satisfaction; pleasant or attractive.
   1.1(of a person) good-natured; kind.
   1.2 ironic Not good; unpleasant.
2(especially of a difference) slight or subtle.
   2.1 Requiring careful consideration.
3 archaic Fastidious; scrupulous. Source: Oxford English Dictionary

2-2. The Origin

Middle English(in the sense ‘stupid’): from Old French, from Latin nescius ‘ignorant’, from nescire ‘not know’.
Other early senses included ‘coy, reserved’, giving rise to ‘fastidious, scrupulous’: this led both to the sense ‘fine, subtle’(regarded by some as the ‘correct’ sense), and to the main current senses. Source: Oxford English Dictionary

2-3. The Details

"nice" means someething positive ways in Present-Day English but it originally has a negative meaning.
Here is historical changes.

foolish, stupid
=> wanton
=> fastidious, fussy
=> difficult to manage
=> minute and subtle
=> precise, critical
=> minutely accurate
=> pleasant, attractive

Originally, it meant foolish and stupid and changed to wanton later on.
Wanton people were fastidious, fussy and difficult to manage.
Such people were minute and subtle and seen as minutely accurate.
Between the 17th - 18th century, it came to have the current meanings, pleasant and attractive.

Here is the same examples below.

Words Original Meanings Current Meanings
boy Middle English(denoting a male servant): of unknown origin A male child or youth
fame Middle English(also in the sense ‘reputation’, which survives in house of ill fame): via Old French from Latin fama The state of being known or talked about by many people, especially on account of notable achievements
pretty Old English prættig; related to Middle Dutch pertich ‘brisk, clever’, obsolete Dutch prettig ‘humorous, sporty’, from a West Germanic base meaning ‘trick’. The sense development ‘deceitful, cunning, clever, skilful, admirable, pleasing, nice’ has parallels in adjectives such as canny, fine, nice, etc.. (of a person, especially a woman or child) attractive in a delicate way without being truly beautiful

3. Conclusion

  1. Pejoration: Shift from positive to negative meanings
  2. Amelioration: Shift from negative to positive meanings

4. Reference

  • Kiyoaki Kikuchi, Takeshi Kioke, Kazutomo Karasawa, Ryuichi Hotta, Kazuki Fukuda, Yasuyuki Kaizuka, Takeshi Matsuzaki,『英語学:現代英語をより深く知るために-現代英語の諸相と英語学術語解説-』, Osaka, Roban Shobo Publishing Co.,Ltd., 2008
  • Oxford English Dictionary
    • silly - Last Accessed: 01 September 2019
    • nice - Last Accessed: 01 September 2019
    • knave - Last Accessed: 01 September 2019
    • villain - Last Accessed: 01 September 2019
    • cunning - Last Accessed: 01 September 2019
    • boy - Last Accessed: 01 September 2019
    • fame - Last Accessed: 01 September 2019
    • house of ill fame - Last Accessed: 01 September 2019
    • pretty - Last Accessed: 01 September 2019