My example is slang, but I am sure there are other terms, such as 'cool,' which came to mean something attractive, impressive, or a state of composure.

The word 'sick' became a _____ in the 2000s for mostly youth in America when it began to mean something amazing, instead of affected by illness.

  • How about "fashionable"? Commented Jan 27, 2017 at 4:19
  • I believe the question is asking for a word comparable to neologism, but for the occasion of an existing word taking on a new meaning, as bad and bomb have done. (And, if you're old enough, you may remember a time when gay meant something different, but I digress.) Commented Jan 27, 2017 at 6:02
  • Do you mean words having changed their meaning, or acquiring additional meaning? Words can acquire additional meanings quite quickly and they may have staying power or quickly drop away. It is, I would hazard, much less common for a new meaning to entirely usurp the original.
    – Spagirl
    Commented Jan 27, 2017 at 14:03
  • 1
    @Spagirl - That is a good question. I suppose for the purpose of my writing, it would be words that have added meaning to them. It would also be a good question to later ask about words that have completely changed meaning.
    – Mikey
    Commented Jan 27, 2017 at 16:38

3 Answers 3


It's formally called semantic change.

From Wikipedia:

Semantic change (also semantic shift, semantic progression, semantic development, or semantic drift) is 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 article lists many "topolgies" of such words. The most prominent one:

[t]he categorization of Blank (1999) has gained increasing acceptance:

Metaphor: Change based on similarity between concepts, e.g., mouse "rodent" → "computer device".

Metonymy: Change based on contiguity between concepts, e.g., horn "animal horn" → "musical instrument".

Synecdoche: A type of metonymy involving a part to whole relationship, e.g. "hands" from "all hands on deck" → "bodies"

Specialization of meaning: Downward shift in a taxonomy, e.g., corn "grain" → "wheat" (UK), → "maize" (US).

Generalization of meaning: Upward shift in a taxonomy, e.g., hoover "Hoover vacuum cleaner" → "any type of vacuum cleaner".

Cohyponymic transfer: Horizontal shift in a taxonomy, e.g., the confusion of mouse and rat in some dialects.

Antiphrasis: Change based on a contrastive aspect of the concepts, e.g., perfect lady in the sense of "prostitute".

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

Auto-converse: Lexical expression of a relationship by the two extremes of the respective relationship, e.g., take in the dialectal use as "give".

Ellipsis: Semantic change based on the contiguity of names, e.g., car "cart" → "automobile", due to the invention of the (motor) car.

Folk-etymology: Semantic change based on the similarity of names, e.g., French contredanse, orig. English country dance.

Blank considers it problematic, though, to include amelioration and pejoration of meaning as well as strengthening and weakening of meaning. According to Blank, these are not objectively classifiable phenomena; moreover, Blank has shown that all of the examples listed under these headings can be grouped into the other phenomena.

I think your example 'sick' is related to the concept of auto-antonymy

An auto-antonym (sometimes spelled autantonym), or contronym (also spelled contranym), 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,[3][4] enantionymy or antilogy.

So, if you want a single word, you can say:

The word 'sick' became a contronym in the 2000s for mostly youth in America when it began to mean something amazing, instead of affected by illness.


Would colloquialism work for your circumstances?

A saying that expresses something other than the literal meaning of the words it contains is a colloquialism.

Definition of Colloquialism

Source: https://www.vocabulary.com/dictionary/colloquialism

  • We're looking for long answers that provide some explanation and context. Please explain why your answer is right, ideally with citations. Answers that don't include explanations may be removed.
    – NVZ
    Commented Jan 27, 2017 at 11:05

Catchphrase may fit:

  • a phrase, as a slogan, that comes to be widely and repeatedly used, often with little of the original meaning remaining.


  • The word 'sick' became a catchphrase in the 2000s for mostly youth in America when it began to mean something amazing, instead of affected by illness.

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