Based on this question, I was curious if there is an actual term that describes how words' meanings change or become deprecated over time.

  • One of the words you used, "degeneration", has a judgmental feel, which was once common, and I think still is in non-specialist discussions. "Corruption" in particular is to be found in older dictionaries. Most linguists today prefer neutral words like "change" or "development". – Colin Fine Jan 26 '11 at 13:03
  • Ah, thanks for the comment. Yeah, I wasn't really sure what the best term was, so I took a chance. :) – user4012 Jan 26 '11 at 17:05

It's known as semantic change, semantic shift, or semantic progression.

Coincidentally, gay is mentioned on that Wikipedia article:

Gay - Originally meant feelings of being "carefree", "happy", or "bright and showy"; it had also come to acquire some connotations of "immorality" as early as 1637. The term later began to be used in reference to homosexuality, in particular, from the early 20th century, a usage that may have dated prior to the 19th century.

  • 1
    "semantic drift" is also in use. – hippietrail Jul 11 '11 at 12:45

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