English Words and Their Background

By George H. McKnight | Go to book overview

CHAPTER XX
DEGENERATION AND ELEVATION

Sir James Barrie in "When a Man's Single," published about 1900, records a price scale announced by a London grocer as follows: "Eggs, new-laid 1s. 3d.; eggs, fresh, 1s. 2d.; eggs warranted, Is.; eggs, 10d." About fourteen years later in May, 1914, the present writer observed in a London grocer's stall the following price scale: New-laid eggs, 10d.; Selected, 12d.; Warranted, 16d. In the period preceding the war the value of eggs had not greatly changed, but the value of words had. The superlative new-laid of 1900 had become degraded to the bottom of the scale.

The experience of the adjective new-laid serves to illustrate a kind of change prevalent among words. Words, like eggs, may degenerate. In fact degeneration of meaning is a conspicuous phenomenon in the science of semantics which deals with development in word meanings. Many of the illustrative words cited in the preceding chapter afford striking illustration of this feature of language. The figurative force of euphemism and hyperbole, like that of the figures based on association, such as the metaphor and metonymy, fades with continued use, and faded euphemism and faded hyperbole result in degeneration of meaning. Such words as indolent, insolent, impertinent, immoral, indignant, misconduct, and misdemeanor, already cited, will serve for illustration. The word insane is obviously no longer euphemistic, but the effect of its euphemistic use has been to lower the word from an earlier meaning of 'not well' (Lat. in + sanus) to its present terribly direct

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