If you hate how people misuse words like "literally" and "awesome," at least you can learn that there's a name for that kind of misuse: semantic bleaching.
Today we’re going to talk about a totally awesome topic: semantic bleaching. This has nothing to do with words in our language turning white. Instead, it has to do with how the meaning of words can fade over time — just like a colorful shirt fades after it’s been washed too many times.
We’ve talked many times on the podcast about how our language is constantly evolving. New words appear—think of “Uber,” “adulting,” “turnt,” or “bae.” Others drop out of favor—like “foxy” or “groovy.” Others fall completely out of use. When’s the last time you heard someone talk about a bodkin or a camelopard, for example? (BTW, a bodkin is what we used to call a knife; a camelopard was a giraffe.)
Some of these changes can seem a bit random, and others fall into patterns.
3 Predicable Ways Words Change
For example, sometimes the literal sense of a word develops a figurative use. The verb “to milk” originally meant to draw milk from a cow or other animal. Over time, the meaning extended, and now you can “milk” someone for anything valuable, usually through trickery or extortion. To “escalate” once meant simply to travel up an escalator. Now, it refers to an increase in intensity or scope, for example when you say something like “Well, that situation sure escalated quickly.”
Another predictable way that words change is by having their scope of meaning narrow. For example, back when Old English was spoken, “meat” referred to any type of food. Over time, the meaning narrowed—and today, of course, we use “meat” to refer only to the flesh of animals. “Liquor” used to mean … a liquid. Now, it refers almost exclusively to alcoholic drinks like beer, wine, and whisky.
Words also change by having their meaning broaden. For example, the word “embargo” originally referred to an order prohibiting ships from entering or leaving a port. The word now can refer to any sort of stoppage or prohibition. You could say you’re putting an embargo on listening to any more Grammar Girl podcasts until you finish your homework, for example!
A 4th Way Words Change: Semantic Bleaching
Another pattern of language change we’re going to focus on today is called semantic bleaching. That occurs when the specific, often powerful meaning of a word becomes diluted over time through repetition and overuse.
For example, the original meaning of the word “awesome” was “full of awe, profoundly reverential.” Something awesome might be the peak of a snow-covered mountain, breaking through the clouds. The vastness of the ocean. Or the spread of stars above you on a clear night.
But then we had to go and start calling everything “awesome.” Our new shoes are awesome. This one kind of shampoo is awesome. The new Heath Caramel Brownie Blizzard from Dairy Queen is awesome. (I mean, it actually is awesome … but you get my point.)
Through overuse, the word has lost its potency. No one expects a pair of shoes to “fill you with awe.” Awesome is now just a general word that means nifty or cool.
Another example of semantic bleaching is “literally.” Every now and then, we use this word the way it was intended: to indicate that what we’re saying is absolutely true. If you said that you got hit on the head by hail that was literally the size of golf balls, then the hail should have been 1.68 inches in diameter.
But more often, we simply mean that the hail pellets were pretty big. We’re using the word “literally” to intensify what we’re saying, not to label it as factual.
“Terrible” and “horrible” have also been weakened by semantic bleaching. “Terrible” originally meant “to inspire great fear or dread”; “horrible” meant “extremely repulsive to the senses or feelings; dreadful, hideous, shocking.”
We still use those words to mean these things. But we also say “my lunch was horrible,” or “that tuna salad was terrible.” We may not have liked the tuna, but did it really “inspire great fear or dread?” Probably not. We’re using “terrible,” but with a faded meaning of “yukky” or “unpleasant.”
Why Does Semantic Bleaching Occur? And Is It Bad?
So why do we insist on overusing words to the point that they lose their meaning? Why don’t we speak more precisely? Why don’t we say that our “tuna salad has a putrid odor,” rather than just “this tuna salad is horrible?”
In part, it’s because we’re lazy. Or as linguist Donka Minkova puts it, most of us “have no particular talent for words.” We take the easy route in speech (and writing). We default to generalizations and commonly used words — rather than making the mental effort to say precisely what we mean.
Is semantic bleaching bad? On the one hand, yes. Using a word like “awesome” to describe everything from a sunset to a stick of gum can narrow the rainbow of ways you can express yourself to one single color. Using more specific words — speaking of a radiant sunset or a tangy piece of gum — could give your speech more vibrancy and perhaps enrich your experience of life itself.
On the other hand, semantic bleaching isn’t bad or good; it simply is. It’s one of the predictable ways that we’ve observed language to change, ever since people have been observing changes in language. It’s kind of like the tide; it erases sandcastles, but also deposits a bounty of treasures on the shore that you can build with the next day.
In short, whether it’s awesome or terrible, semantic bleaching is literally here to stay.
Samantha Enslen runs Dragonfly Editorial. You can find her at dragonflyeditorial.com or @DragonflyEdit.
Harbeck, James. Croon. Sesquiota: Words, Words, Words (accessed August 28, 2019).
Minkova, Donka, and Robert Stockwell. English Words: History and Structure, pp. 174–180. Cambridge University Press, 2009.
Nordquist, Richard. Semantic Bleaching of Word Meanings. ThoughtCo. (accessed August 28, 2019).
Oxford English Dictionary, online edition. Oxford University Press. Awesome, embargo, escalate, hortible, liquor, meat, terrible (subscription required, accessed August 28, 2019).
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