I am interested in semantic shift undergone by words, and I am aware of classic examples like 'gay', which has shifted in meaning since the 1900s. However, are there any words that have actually undergone multiple such changes from, say, 1850 to the present?

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    How big a change do you want? Every term in computer science and electronic technology -- to take only one example -- has been invented in the last century, largely by adding extra meanings or metaphoric extensions or abbreviations or slang usages of existing words. Most words are already polysemous, and they don't lose meanings just because they gain new ones in different contexts. Old meanings drift away when their contexts disappear; technology inevitably destroys linguistic habitat. – jlawler Jul 22 '14 at 17:21
  • A few examples of popular words is sufficient. I just want to get a sense of these words. – vvknitk Jul 23 '14 at 12:27
  • There's a list of computer terms that are obvious metaphors in this article: editor, file, folder, spreadsheet, hacking, jump drive, slide show, the Net, the Web, surfing, spam, overflow, virus, worm, cut-and-paste, cyberspace, garbage, troll, and wizard. Those were just off the top of my head -- there's plenty more. – jlawler Jul 23 '14 at 14:35
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    Just in English or across all languages? If the former then please add the English tag. – hippietrail Jul 25 '14 at 3:02

Some English words have undergone multiple semantic changes, but you might have trouble finding multiple changes within the restricted time from 1850 to the present.

Some Examples:

  • Silly: from "happy" to "blessed" to "pious," to "innocent" (c.1200), to "harmless," to "pitiable" (late 13c.), "weak" (c.1300), to "feeble in mind, lacking in reason, foolish" (1570s). Further tendency toward "stunned, dazed as by a blow" (1886) to today's "frivolous".

  • Fanny: from "a diminutive of Frances" (1700-1800's) to "female genitalia" (1879) to "buttocks" (since 1920's in America only).

  • Swell: from "a morbid swelling" (1200) "rise in sea" (1600) or " a rise music" (1803) to "wealthy, elegant person" (1786) to "good, excellent" (1897). Just for fun also see "An Unfinished Story" by O Henry (1906): "Well, ain't you the lucky one? Piggy's an awful swell; and he always takes a girl to swell places. He took Blanche up to the Hoffman House one evening, where they have swell music, and you see a lot of swells. You'll have a swell time, Dulcie."

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