How do some words get alternate meanings that have nothing to do with their original definition? For example, the word cool means both moderately cold and permitting such a sensation. How are these alternate definitions coined?

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    Because people start using them that way. That is the whole of the answer. You can sometimes identify a particular event or set of circumstances by which a particular word acquires a new meaning, but the general question has no more specific answer. – Colin Fine Aug 12 '11 at 13:45

One of the ways that new meaning comes up is through usage. Alternate meanings come from change in meanings due to the way its used. Let's take the word you gave, cool. Originally meant to mean moderately cold, if someone wasn't excited, or someone was calm and had good control over himself, he was said to be "cool as a cucumber", that is, not easily excited. Thus, an alternate meaning of cool came from describing a person who did not get "hot" in an exciting occurrence, or debate, etc.

Then, as time wore on, someone who could hold his nerves was looked up to, and someone who was "cool" soon began to mean something more of the, "admirable"(e.g. "That car is cool".

Thus, we can kind of slowly trace the alternate meanings in a word. But they're different for every word.

The main thing that influences them however, is what they're used for, and the environment around usage.

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  • A much more specific occurrence of word change is something called Grammaticalization (en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Grammaticalization). This is the process that turns words such as 'go' into a functional word, as in "I'm going to scream." – Mark T Aug 11 '11 at 20:25
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    Cool=popular/fashionable is probably a deliberate inversion of the earlier hot. Like bad means good – mgb Aug 11 '11 at 22:39

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