Is there a name for the linguistic phenomenon in which a general term gains a much more specific meaning?

For example, "Prohibition" is used to mean "Alcohol prohibition in the United States" or "Abolition" is used to mean "Abolition of slavery".

In Hebrew this is common for certain religious terms, e.g. Eruv meaning "mixture", but has expanded to mean something else. Same with Seruv meaning simply "refusal", but being used as refusal to grant a divorce.

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    Specialization is one good term; it happens a lot. For instance, the Proto-Germanic root for 'dog' shows up in German as Hund, which just means 'dog', but in English it's specialized to hound, which is a special type of dog. Or German Tier 'animal' shows up in English specialized as deer, to only one variety of animal. Quite a normal phenomenon; general terms are useful when you always have variable phenomena to refer to, but if it shows up too frequently in only one context, it'll get fixed there, like seruv with giving a get.
    – jlawler
    Commented Jun 3, 2015 at 22:43
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    Another term often used is semantic narrowing. Commented Jun 3, 2015 at 22:55

1 Answer 1


A term commonly used to refer to this process of semantic change is semantic narrowing. This, along with other types of semantic change as well as the processes involved, are discussed on WP. As pointed out in a comment, this process is also sometimes known as specialization.

The opposite process is known as semantic broadening/widening or generalization.

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