Semantic Changes

The study of language rests partly on the study of its evolution within (among other things) certain social, historical, and geographic contexts. In the English language, as I’m sure is the case with most languages, words find a way of falling in and out of use, getting an updated, more contemporary definition, or sometimes going so far as changing their meaning entirely. In this short blog post, we’re going to look at some of these aforementioned changes through studying the evolution of the words “defecate,” “tweet”,” and “queer.”

Old use: “ iz defecated by al nights standing, the drink iz the better” (R. Laneham Let).
Modern use: “Malaysian diplomat under a ‘love spell’ admits he defecated outside victim’s home” (OneNewsNow).

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, “defecate” first emerged as an adjective that described that which was purified. It soon became a verb and was given an attachment. The word “Defecate” then referred to purifying the body from pollution. As we see it today, the word means, to quote the OED, “to void the body of faeces.” It’s interesting to see the meaning shift the way it did. While this isn’t an example of a word that was greatly changed, seeing the way in which an attribute was added to the word to give it a more specific meaning (purifying something bad in general to purifying faeces specifically) is noteworthy.

Old use: “The little bird..Tweets to its mate a tiny loving note” (G. Meredith Poems).

Modern use: “Who Tweeted it: Donald Trump or Kanye West? (CNN)

What initially started out as a phonetic noun in the 19th century, the sound of an animal, has now become a popular term coined after the creation of social media platform Twitter. While both meanings are in use today, the former has been replaced with words like “chirping.” And that goes back to the popularity of Twitter. “Tweeting” is almost exclusively attached to the social media outlet now, to the point, in fact, where some people might not even recognise the original meaning. Tweeting associated with birds is therefore falling out of use.
In the Twitterverse, a “Tweet” is both a verb and a noun. The noun refers to the 140 character posts users make or messages they write on each other’s boards, while the verb refers to the act of writing and sending a message/post.

Old use: “His appearance bordered..upon what is vulgarly called the queer” (Scott Woodstock).

Modern use: “Author writing a ‘radical queer’ Bible with gay relationships and gender-flipped prophets” (PinkNews)

The term originated from a 16th century word for ‘perverse.’ It started out as an adjective that referred to veering from the socially approved of norms. It was then used to describe people who were in trouble, often for having lots of debts; ‘Queer Street is full of lodgers just at present’ (Charles Dickens, Our Mutual Friend, 1865).
It wasn’t until the 19th century that it was used the way it is understood today; to refer to homosexuals. It was also often used as a derogatory word by heterosexuals, but in the 1980s, as part of a pride movement, homosexuals used the term on each other to spread it in more positive light, and this last version of it is the one that prevails until today. While it is used more to refer to the general spectrum of sexual and gender identities that do not conform to the traditionally accepted orientations, it is used in positive light nonetheless.