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Many years ago I heard a linguistics professor use a term to describe when negative words evolve to express positive opinions. For example, African Americans began in the 1970s to say "bad" when approving of someone or something.

The only other examples of adjectives I can think of come from modern slang, as in "sick", "ill" and "mad". But there's a long history of well-known adverbs like "awfully", "terribly" and "horribly" that are used for positive emphasis, as in "It smells awfully delicious."

The professor didn't use "antagonym", "Janus word", etc., which describe words that also mean their opposite; he was discussing the phenomenon in which words take on their opposite meaning, like "literally" did when it recently came to mean "figuratively" (alas!).

Are there any linguists here who might know something about that term or concept?

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The term awful used to mean to be filled with awe, (full of awe) which has been replaced with awesome, then it changed its meaning to "extremely bad"; the "awfully" in your example: It smells awfully nice only means "very", which, in a sense is harking back to its origin. – Mari-Lou A Jan 9 at 12:38
'Literally' has a century's long history of being used literally. Literally! – Mitch Jan 9 at 14:39
Despite what people often claim, "literally" is never used to mean "figuratively". It's often used in statements that are not literally true; but it's never used to mean that a statement is not literally true. – ruakh Jan 9 at 23:54
@ruakh Indeed, it has become a word for emphasis, as words with similar meanings are wont to do. (Compare 'truly' and 'very'.) – Nothing at all yesterday
@Nothing: I was thinking the same thing before I saw your comment: “literally” has come to mean “very” or “I feel strongly about this”. I suspect that many of the people who use the word don’t even understand the concepts of “literally” and “figuratively”, so they cannot possibly be using “literally” to mean “figuratively”. … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … (I believe that using words such as “literally” and “actually” should be a privilege that is earned by reputation points (i.e., demonstrating a knowledge of how to use them correctly and a willingness to do so).) – Scott 23 hours ago
up vote 6 down vote accepted

You could be talking about semantic change also known as semantic shift, semantic progression or semantic drift.

the evolution of word usage — usually to the point that the modern meaning is radically different from the original usage. In diachronic (or historical) linguistics, semantic change is a change in one of the meanings of a word. Every word has a variety of senses and connotations, which can be added, removed, or altered over time, often to the extent that cognates across space and time have very different meanings. The study of semantic change can be seen as part of etymology, onomasiology, semasiology, and semantics.

The linked Wikipedia article lists example words such as awful, demagogue, knight, etc.

Elevation: e.g., knight "boy" → "nobleman".

Auto-antonymy: Change of a word's sense and concept to the complementary opposite, e.g., bad in the slang sense of "good".

Auto-antonym is a sub-category of semantic change:

An auto-antonym (sometimes spelled autantonym), or contronym (also spelled contranym), is a word with a homograph (another word of the same spelling) which is also an antonym (a word with the opposite meaning). An auto-antonym is alternatively called an antagonym, Janus word (after the Roman god), enantiodrome, self-antonym, antilogy, or addad (Arabic, singular didd). It is a word with multiple meanings, one of which is defined as the reverse of one of its other meanings. This phenomenon is called enantiosemy, enantionymy or antilogy.


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Excellent answer! Semantic change may be a bit more general than what I was looking for, but your response led me to "enantiosemy", which describes the specific phenomenon. – Matt Jan 9 at 12:25
By the way, of parenthetical interest, your demagogue example reminded me that the prof used the word "silly" as a historical example. It once meant "touched by God", then shifted to "foolish" in the same way that we now use "special" to describe people with limited capacities. From there it took on its modern meaning. – Matt Jan 9 at 12:30
@Matt Yes, you could see the semantic shift in the link for the word silly. – Rathony Jan 9 at 12:34

Related to Rathony's answer—semantic change, the linguistic term amelioration specifically refers to words whose meaning is elevated, improved, or made positive.

Examples of such words, used especially in slang, are:

In linguistics, amelioration is the upgrading or elevation of a word's meaning, as when a word with a negative sense develops a positive one. Also called melioration or elevation.

Amelioration is less common than the opposite historical process, called pejoration.

Amelioration, whereby a word takes on favorable connotations and deterioration whereby it takes on pejorative associations, are often telling indications of social change. […] Hence, villein, a medieval serf, and Anglo-Saxon ceorl, still lower in the hierarchy, deteriorated to villain and churlish, while noble and gentle, predictably, rose in moral connotations.

Geoffrey Hughes, Words in Time: A Social History of the English Vocabulary

Source: Grammar About.com

An extract taken from Daily Koss

Origins of English: Amelioration and Pejoration

Amelioaration ... A more recent change can be seen in “geek” which in 1916** was listed as U.S. carnival and circus slang meaning “sideshow freak.” The word appears to be a variant of “geck” which in the 1510s meant “a fool, dupe, simpleton.” By 1983, “geek” was used as a slang term referring to students who lacked social graces but were obsessed with computers and new technology. In the twenty-first century, “geek” has expanded to refer to someone with special knowledge, not limited to computers.

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Also an excellent answer! ... Would amelioration be considered a sub-category of enantiosemy? – Matt Jan 9 at 12:45
@Matt I'd say that amelioration and enantiosemy (or contronyms) are subcategories of semantic change. – Mari-Lou A Jan 9 at 12:58
It should be noted that "hacker" went the opposite direction -- from a slightly positive term to a fairly negative one. – Hot Licks Jan 9 at 13:17
@Mari-LouA. Fantastic! You and Rathony both nailed it. – Matt Jan 9 at 13:23

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