Semantic loss or how ‘shit’ turned into ‘stuff’

 

Another great article by the phonologist and Guardian writer, David Shariatmadari1, gave an introduction to the fascinating phenomena of semantic bleaching and grammaticalisation. The former relates to the process whereby a word’s original meaning is reduced or lost altogether, and the latter to the way that, simultaneously, the word’s grammatical content increases.

Force or emphasis

Words like ‘horrible’, ‘terrible’ and ‘awesome’ used to explain the feelings of terror, horror and awe that whatever they were describing induced. More recently, they have become mere intensifiers to give force or emphasis to a phrase. American linguist and lexicographer Erin McKean2 notes that it was only in the late 1800s that young women began to apply the word love to talk about their relationship to inanimate objects like food.

Phonetically reduced

With its original lexical value removed, a phrase can be reduced to a mere grammatical function word. This happens with the verb ‘go’, for example, when we use it merely to denote a future intention or plan. ‘Go’ has a totally different role to perform in the two questions: ‘What are you going to do next year?’ and ‘Where are you going next year?’ The response to the former will be about career, job, studies etc. The verb ‘go’ in this context doesn’t relate to any actual movement or travel. Stripped of its full meaning, it becomes phonetically reduced – or, as some would have it, pronounced lazily – as ‘I’m gonna’. In contrast, when we say: ‘Next year, I’m going to Spain‘, ‘go’ denotes a real journey. Under these circumstances, the verb retains its full meaning and, as a consequence, it cannot be reduced. We can’t say ‘I’m gonna Spain next year’.

It's just grammer!

In English, and particularly in British English, we reduce function or grammar words and use contractions to push speaker energy onto the content words, those that contain the main message. In the first example, we might say: ‘I’m gonna STUDY FRENCH next year’. Here, ‘gonna’ is there to indicate that we’re talking about the future. Our response to the second question would be: ‘I’m GOING to SPAIN next year’. ‘Go’ is an active verb here, telling the interlocutor that the speaker’s plan is to travel abroad. We can substitute ‘gonna’ for another future form and say, for example, ‘I’m studying French next year’ or ‘I’ll study French next year’. It’s just grammar! We can’t do this in the second instance.

If you will...

Talking of ‘will’, this standard future tense was related to notions of desire and intent, meaning ‘want’. And this significance still persists today in the phrase, ‘if you will’, meaning ‘if you will allow this analogy’: ‘She’s from Australia or ‘Down Under’, if you will’. It can also be used to mean ‘if it pleases you’: ‘Sit here, if you will’.  It’s easy to see how it gradually became a future marker divested of its full meaning and gradually relegated to a mere particle, in contractions such as ‘I’ll’, ‘you’ll’ and ‘he’ll’.

Oh shit!

Which brings us to the hitherto rather taboo word ‘shit’, which has almost totally detached itself from its original association and has become a synonym of ‘stuff’. Check out urbandictionary.com for a full breakdown, but here are just two examples of what I mean: ‘With a little effort, you can get your shit together’ and ‘Find a place for your shit’. In both these examples, the word ‘shit’ has been broadened to mean ‘stuff’ or ‘things’. How much more anodyne can you get? 

 

1                https://www.theguardian.com/science/2019/aug/15/why-its-time-to-stop-worrying-about-the-decline-of-the-english-language

2                https://www.thoughtco.com/semantic-bleaching-word-meanings-1689028

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