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What is the term for words that have changed meaning over time? For example, in relation to this question on Workplace Stack Exchange the term snafu was of military origin and was used to define a person, team, organisation, etc that continually makes mistakes. The first time I saw the term was in relation to a data protection leak and this now seems a pretty common usage e.g this article amongst the tech community.

Is there a term to describe words that have changed meaning over time, or words that have been adopted by a particular community and had their meaning altered?

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The linguistic term for words that have changed meaning over time is words. –  RegDwigнt Nov 26 '12 at 15:20
@RegDwighт so there is no term that describes words that change meaning over time other than 'words' which also describes all words? –  ssbrewster Nov 26 '12 at 15:24
Yes. All words change over time. –  Matt E. Эллен Nov 26 '12 at 15:28
All words change meaning over time, so there is no concept restricted to 'word that doesn't change over time' and so there is expected single word for either. So trivially, the word to call 'a word that changes over time' is 'word'. Ha ha! Get it? –  Mitch Nov 26 '12 at 15:30
I did use the word 'term' in the question - I'm not asking for a single word to describe words that change meaning over time. –  ssbrewster Nov 26 '12 at 15:44

4 Answers 4

up vote 12 down vote accepted

There isn't a word for those words, but the evolution of meaning is called semantic change.

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Examples of semantic (and other) changes in four Proto-Indo-European roots: *sed- 'sit', *genə- 'born, birth', *penkʷe- 'five', and *dei- 'shine' –  John Lawler Nov 26 '12 at 16:16

Snafu has not so much changed its meaning over time as come to be used by a larger linguistic community. Nevertheless, words do change their meaning over time. Where a word with a general meaning comes to have a more specific one, the process is semantic narrowing. An example is deer, which once meant any kind of animal, but now means only members of the family Cervidae. The opposite process is semantic widening. An example is office, which was limited to various ecclesiastical meanings before developing the uses which we know today.

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Other than "deer", it is intersting to notice the word "worm", which was a term for any crawling creature, including snakes; and "meat" or "forest" are noticeable in this sense, too. –  user19148 Nov 26 '12 at 17:30

At first I thought this...

anachronisms (words which have changed in meaning over the centuries)

...was a slightly odd definition. But then I realised I was conflating anachronisms with archaisms (words which aren't used at all any more). In a language context, an anachronism arises if you try to use a word with a meaning which it no longer has (because the meaning has changed).

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When a word goes from having a positive connotation to a negative one, it is said to have undergone "pejoration" (def: The process by which the meaning of a word becomes negative or less elevated over a period of time).

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