Someone else asked Are camp followers prostitutes? and the answer seems to be that while not every one who follows a military camp is a prostitute, if you aren't referring to a prostitute, you should probably pick another label for the person.

A similar effect can be seen with sexually themed words like "mistress", "madam", "ejaculate", and "escort".

I assume this linguistic process has been studied and I'm curious what its name is.

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    I don't see where you got your "answer seems to be..." idea from. The only person suggesting that was the original OP - both in the question, and in his own answer to it (which currently has no upvotes). All other comments and answers pretty much agree with the top-rated answer, which says the term can be used in non-military contexts in which there is clearly no improper suggestion. Which is not to say other examples don't exist - just that "camp followers" isn't a particularly good one. Nov 21, 2012 at 0:36
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    @FumbleFingers I’ve heard that Judy Garland has camp followers, too. :)
    – tchrist
    Nov 21, 2012 at 1:00
  • It's called "language change" or "lexical evolution" or "a word means what the users understand it to mean" or "descriptivist evolution". Just depends on whether you're reactionary & ultra-orthodox or tuned in to what people say & what they mean by it. I don't agree that when only one of many possible meanings becomes the only current meaning of a word, that the meaning is "improper", just tendentious. Word meanings broaden & narrow over time as well as with the dominant ideology in a social group. "Improper" is, strictly, a moral judgment, but language, like Nature, is amoral.
    – user21497
    Nov 21, 2012 at 3:33
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    Perhaps this is related to the euphemism treadmill.
    – user1635
    Nov 21, 2012 at 5:19
  • Useful wiki on misnomer here: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Misnomer Nov 21, 2012 at 7:01

2 Answers 2


What appears to have happened in the case of words like camp followers, gay, ejaculate, etc. is a narrowing or specialisation of their meanings.

Semantic narrowing:

"Narrowing of meaning. This happens when a word with a general meaning is by degrees applied to something much more specific. The word litter, for example, meant originally (before 1300) 'a bed,' then gradually narrowed down to 'bedding,' then to 'animals on a bedding of straw,' and finally to things scattered about, odds and ends. ... Other examples of specialization are deer, which originally had the general meaning 'animal,' girl, which meant originally 'a young person,' and meat, whose original meaning was 'food.'"

(Sol Steinmetz, Semantic Antics: How and Why Words Change Meanings. Random House, 2008)

Semantic broadening, as it were, is referred to as semantic bleaching.

  • I can't seem to agree that narrowing or bleaching could imply taking on something that wasn't there in the first place. Worse still, something quite contrary to what was.
    – Kris
    Nov 21, 2012 at 5:23
  • @Kris For example? Nov 21, 2012 at 5:31
  • As in OP's. Originally, camp follower did not mean a prostitute. The de facto meaning today (if the argument is correct) is contrary to the original meaning.
    – Kris
    Nov 21, 2012 at 5:37
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    @Kris IMO, originally camp followers referred to those who followed a camp. It then appears to have become specific to military camps with camp followers including, amongst others, prostitutes. It has since devolved to only refer to prostitutes. This fits in well with semantic narrowing. Nov 21, 2012 at 5:48
  • It's neither narrowing nor broadening but semantic corruption.
    – Kris
    Nov 21, 2012 at 6:00

That is the opposite of euphemism. Not the opposite meaning, but the opposite dynamics - not substituting a term but allowing the meaning of a term to deteriorate.

Euphemism - substituting a gentler word to describe an unpleasant situation or environment.

Anti-euphemism - the deteriorated association of a term due to its usual and persistent usage.

What I am thinking are the words dysphemism - deteriorated reputation, and pejoration, having a few modes of dynamics:

  1. Pejoration - a word having gone thro deterioration and applying that deteriorated word pejoratively (e.g. retard, unique, the n-word, the fag-word)
  2. Pejoration - an euphemism evolving into dysphemism, due to basic unpleasant application of the word (e.g. toilet)
  3. using an immutably unpleasant word pejoratively (e.g. You are full of sh!t)

Examples of dysphemistic deterioration (i.e., pejoration) of words:

  • The word toilet in American English. Toilet was meant to be an euphemism for a smelly room because "toilet" actually means "dressing room".

    Hence, "You smell like a toilet." Perhaps, one day we will witness the pejoration of the meaning of the phrase "You smell like a bathroom" in American English.

  • The boy has unique qualities. Retarded children. - these used to be pleasant euphemism, but their use have deteriorated due to the basic negative association society has on the subjects they describe.

Perhaps, as purported, the pejoration of the word camp-followers due to the following process

  1. Using camp-followers euphemistically to denote prostitutes.
  2. Due to the basic negative subject, the phrase camp-followers pejorates.
  3. The reversed polarity due to pejoration, the phrase is now a dysphemism.




  • +1 Interesting stuff. I'm not sure I understand your example of unique and retarded. Were they pleasant euphemisms? Nov 21, 2012 at 3:59
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    If you are older than 60, retarded would be an euphemism during the days of your childhood. "Unique" has been used pejoratively in the recent decade. Nov 21, 2012 at 4:04
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    Children of retarded development used to he a way to pleasantly describe certain children. Nov 21, 2012 at 4:07
  • @BlessedGeek -- I've never heard "unique" used as an insult, but "special" is definitely trotting down the euphemism treadmill. Nov 26, 2012 at 19:53

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