I recently read an article in which the author was attempting to explain how "semantic range" works. He explained it like this:

  • words don't have "a" meaning; they have a semantic range of possible meanings (e.g. the English words "run", "set", "point", etc.)

  • you determine which meaning is "meant" by the context in which the word is used

  • however, that is not to say that the meaning of a word is determined entirely by its context; a word is not a "blank check", devoid of meaning, capable of "meaning" anything we want depending on how we choose to use it

  • rather, a communicator uses and combines what is already in the language to convey their message, using words within their established semantic ranges, using context to clarify which definition within the semantic range that they are intending in each instance

My question is: how do new meanings arise then? Clearly they do arise, hence the shifts in languages over time. The above explanation of semantic range seems to imply that new meanings are not allowed in a language though. What am I missing?

  • 1
    For new meanings to arise, ranges must be extended. I don't see the problem.
    – Greg Lee
    Jan 25, 2015 at 0:15
  • The problem is that the person initially extending the range would be violating the 3rd and 4th points; they would be using the word as a "blank check" and would not be using what was already in the language.
    – Jas 3.1
    Jan 25, 2015 at 0:18
  • 1
    I think your fourth 'rule' is too strong. People sometimes creatively take the language in new ways. Every minute microdialects form. Very rarely a new sense becomes popular and spreads throughout a whole language.
    – curiousdannii
    Jan 25, 2015 at 0:36
  • @curiousdannii I think you're right. I'm having more trouble with the third point though. When new meanings arise, aren't those inventing them treating the words like "blank checks" with no meaning in and of themselves? Doesn't this destroy the notion of a semantic range?
    – Jas 3.1
    Jan 25, 2015 at 0:41
  • No, the new senses always have to have a context. And most new senses are somehow related to the old senses. You probably have some inside jokes with your friends where a single word will start everyone laughing. That word makes you think of X which makes you think of Y which makes you think of the original joke. It can be like that. Actually inside jokes are probably a common way of new senses developing.
    – curiousdannii
    Jan 25, 2015 at 0:46

3 Answers 3


Those 'rules' are really too strong. People are constantly creatively changing how they use their languages, and every minute 'microdialects' form.

The new senses people start using will always have some context, and the new senses will usually be related to one of the old senses, though it might be hard to see just how. One way a new sense could begin would be an inside joke some friends share. One word will make them think of the funny situation, but then later they might start using other words. Word X makes them think of word Y which makes them think of word Z which makes them think of the original joke. X is similar to Y which is similar to Z which is similar to the joke, but to everyone else X wouldn't seem like it had anything to do with the joke at all.

These little microdialects will exist between friends and families everywhere. Occasionally one new sense becomes very popular and will spread throughout the whole community. The internet is a really interesting place to watch that happen. Urban Dictionary lets you see the new senses people on the other side of the world are developing, while Know Your Meme shows 'search interest' graphs which show you when a term gained prominence on the net.

An English example is the word awful. It is clearly derived from the word awe, and originally was an adjective that meant the thing inspired a lot of awe. I don't know the history of the word, but I'd assume that with other words like wonderful and beautiful and impressive the word awful gradually begun to be used only in negative contexts. This pejoration meant that the word now is specifically negative. At the same time awe became more positive, so that it now seems very odd for the words to be related.


The answers provided are not very helpful.

Common ways that words gain new meanings are through metaphor and metonymy. Words also shift by changing word classes. A common situation is nouns being used as verbs, such as google.

An example of metaphor-induced change (I wrote a paper on this): "over" never used to be usable in talking about time, such as "over the past few days". In the 1800s though, there were poetic uses, such as saying that a major event cast a shadow over the following decade. That is using a common schema of visualizing time as a space. If it is a space then something can cast a shadow over it. If enough people speak in this metaphoric sense about time, using the word "over", then eventually people can get used to in normal grammar, and it will find it's way into more phrases, like "over a period", "over time", and "over the years".

Whenever a new concept arises in a culture, metaphor is typically used to speak about such concepts. For example, a computer mouse is only called such, because it is kind of the shape and size of a mouse and traditionally had a cord attached that that resembles a mouse's tail.

In some cases, the form or function of a thing can change over time, gradually, while the word(s) associated with it follow along. Think about the earliest telephones compared to the modern idea of a phone. I'm sure better examples of this could be provided.

Metonymy is where one thing is commonly associated with another and used in place of it, such as saying that "George flew to Brazil." Did George actually fly, or did he get in a plane which flew to Brazil? It would be considered metonymy, if the temporal sense of "over", had developed from a common association with the spatial sense, having to do with travelling over distances, which of course takes time as well. However I do not believe "over time", developed this way.

I do suspect that one way "over" began being used in a temporal sense has to do with graphs used in economics, stock markets and science. Considering that graphs would typically put time on the X-axis and chart changes in a dependent variable on the Y-axis, the resulting graph could be seen going up or down over time. I don't know if this should be called metaphor or metonymy or something else, but it is an example of the "inside joke" phenomenon mentioned by curiousdanni. Innovative language in one realm, such as sports and games (low blow, rain check, pawn), the military (fubar, deadline, blockbuster), leaks into common usage. Such terms usually have a specific meanings in there origin but broaden or shift greatly when it enters common parlance. The shifts again take place through metaphor, metonymy, or something else.

Another common trend is for words to shift in meaning from concrete and tangible to abstract. If you look at the etymology of any abstract word in English, there is a good chance it has origins is some everyday physical thing. For example, "government" comes from the verb, "govern" which ultimately originates from the Greek word kybernan, which means "to steer or pilot a ship". Metaphor strikes again.

The fact of the matter is, the only way people learn (and thus perpetuate) words is by observing how others use it and making up some unconscious rule in their head about what the word means and how to use it, based on the contexts that they hear it in. But human minds are not like computers. They are very fuzzy and like to generalize things and consider the whole rather than the parts. In the process of learning words it is very easy for one person to store slightly different rules in their head compared to the people they have learned it from. Thus they will stretch or shift the boundaries whenever they use the word. And of course people enjoy stretching meanings deliberately too.

  • 1
    An answer is not here to criticse the other answers given. Just state your point without a cross-the-board critcism of the other answers. If you feel that another answer can be improved, use a comment on that answer. Jun 22, 2017 at 10:18
  • 1
    I wasn't criticizing. I was just stating a fact and a justification for posting my answer even though it is a rather old question. Did you downvote my answer because you thought I was insulting the other answers? My answer should be evaluated on how well it answers the question, not based on if it might hurt others feelings.
    – Moss
    Jun 22, 2017 at 12:56
  • This is the only answer that mentions metaphor, for starts. "Semantic range" is handwaving, and usually just refers to the detritus of fossilized metaphors.
    – jlawler
    Jun 22, 2017 at 16:20

The assumption here is that words have only a narrow "semantic range" and can not be applied in ways inconsistent with that range. Language is inherently inconsistent. Consider both colloquial expressions and innuendo; these do not reflect entirely (semantically speaking) accurate use of a language. Language is a series of sounds with associated ideas and emotions; these sounds don't represent a "thing", they represent what we associate with the thing as well as the characteristics of that thing itself, but not the actual thing. If another object becomes associated with that "thing", the word may come to be applied to it too. Consider the etymology of the word "bead" as an example of semantic change. Hope this helped. Also, to the "awful" vs "awesome" comment made above, it seems more reasonable when considering the context of the words. There are things that are described as awful, referred to with a sense of fear or dread. Consider that sights which capture attention are often called "awesome", or that the viewer/s are "awestruck". This could easily have come from the same origin - a terrifying sight that renders a person transfixed, vs an awe-inspiring sight that renders a person transfixed. This also provides a transition point to the meaning of "awesome" when referring to an item rather than a "sight" (eg. "it is awesome").

  • 3
    Can you elaborate on your example of the etymology of "bead"? I'm not familiar with it.
    – Jas 3.1
    Jan 26, 2015 at 17:36

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