Note: I have zero background in linguistics, so I do not know if my question is valid, and I am probably not going to use proper terminology. Thank you for reading. Here goes.

Can the use of a word change from formal to informal, or vice versa, while the meaning of the word remains the same?

For example, take the word "sweet", as in:

"The exam has been cancelled? Sweet!"
"I just downloaded a sweet app."
"He's got a sweet jump shot."

Here, the meaning of "sweet" is something like: pleasing to the mind or feelings; gratifying (thefreedictionary). This use of "sweet" is decidedly informal.

But I just read that the use of "the sweet science", to refer to the sport of boxing, dates back to 1813. It seems that in this context "sweet" also meant pleasing to the mind or feelings; gratifying. What about the register (in 1813): was it formal, or informal?

More generally, can the formality of a word change over time, while its meaning remains the same?

  • 1
    The sense you quote (from senses 3a and 3b under the second sweet entry in the TFD link) is not particularly informal – it’s quite neutral. The uses in your blockquote relate rather to sense 12, which is informal. Being an avid avoider of boxing, I’d never heard it referred to as the ‘sweet science’, and the name doesn’t really make sense to me. All the sites I can find that supposedly explain it only describe why it’s called a science, although none of the meanings of sweet really makes sense either. Jul 26, 2022 at 13:40
  • 2
    "formal" and "informal" aren't really very well defined. At best they refer to different registers. Which means of course the use of a word can change between "formal" and "informal" - we all constantly adjust how we speak blurring the lines between registers, often even in the middle of a single sentence!
    – curiousdannii
    Jul 26, 2022 at 13:46
  • @JanusBahsJacquet Despite which definition in the TFD link is labelled as slang, I feel that "pleasing to the mind or senses" is a slightly better description than "remarkable; oustanding", of the meaning of "sweet" as used in the blockquote (so I guess my providing the reference may be confusing). As far as boxing, my understanding is that, boxing is not just punching someone; there are elegant principles and a well-developed body of knowledge involved, thus making the sport pleasing to the intellect.
    – Dan
    Jul 26, 2022 at 13:57
  • @Dan ‘Outstanding’ here should be understood as ‘fantastic, amazing’, I think (rather than just ‘noteworthy’), which matches the quotes better. ‘Pleasing to the mind/senses’ doesn’t match the meaning I associate with sweet in the examples you give – it just means ‘awesome’. Jul 26, 2022 at 14:03


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