Take an example of the English word 'just'.

While it means 'morally fair' in "a just social system", it also means 'a little' in "just less than 8%".

For a myriad of colourful meanings of 'just', check Bing. A portion of it is below:

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My questions are:

1. Why and how do such words come to mean so different, unrelated things?

2. I am a native Hindi speaker. I also know Marathi and Sanskrit. Such words are too rare in Indian languages, if any. So, I want to know if this phenomenon is present only in English (and some other languages) or is it common to a large number of languages (with different origins and history).

3. What does the fact that this phenomenon is common in some languages and not others, tell us about the evolution of those languages?

  • 2
    See Gerald Cohen's "How did the English word just acquire its different meanings?", in Papers from the Fifth Regional Meeting, Chicago Linguistic Society (CLS 5) 1969, pp 25-29. – jlawler Aug 22 at 23:47
  • @jlawler Thanks a lot, will try to find it and read it. – Ritesh Singh Aug 23 at 10:12
  • 2
    Straightness symbolizes fairness. The greater the precision, the greater the fairness. The greater the precision, the smaller the fundamental amounts. – Lucian Aug 24 at 4:03
  • Re: what @Lucian said, often the ways in which words change is culturally-defined, and so the transformation may not be obvious or intuitive. – ubadub Sep 20 at 16:34
up vote 1 down vote accepted

There are a number of mechanisms:

  1. Phonological changes: two (or more) words with unrelated etymologies which were not homophones may merge due to a series of sound changes.

  2. Semantic drift/semantic change: an example is the word your provided, "just." Both come from French "juste" and ultimately from Latin "iustus." This is not an uncommon or unusual semantic shift. In the original sense, "just" meant "morally upright, righteous in the eyes of God; justifiable; equitable, impartial, fair; conforming to rules." This transforms into the sense of "marked or characterized by precision; exact, having correct dimensions" and this in turn becomes "exactly, precisely, punctually." All of these sense of the words have been maintained in modern English.

Without concrete data, we don't have much reason to believe that such words are rare in Marathi or Sanskrit. You may just not be aware of them. In general, native language speakers do not pay much conscious attention to different meanings of different words, while a lexicographer (who composes a dictionary) must pay attention to even the most subtle differences.

EDIT: The sense evolution of "just" may be a culturally-specific phenomenon, so I can see how it may not be so obvious to people from other cultures.

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