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?

  • 22
    The linguistic term for words that have changed meaning over time is words.
    – RegDwigнt
    Commented Nov 26, 2012 at 15:20
  • 1
    @RegDwighт so there is no term that describes words that change meaning over time other than 'words' which also describes all words?
    – br3w5
    Commented Nov 26, 2012 at 15:24
  • 2
    Yes. All words change over time. Commented Nov 26, 2012 at 15:28
  • 1
    Reg's comment is a cromulent answer to your question. Commented Nov 26, 2012 at 16:04
  • 1
    A better example might be the word "gay"
    – wim
    Commented Nov 27, 2012 at 1:03

4 Answers 4


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

  • Examples of semantic (and other) changes in four Proto-Indo-European roots: *sed- 'sit', *genə- 'born, birth', *penkʷe- 'five', and *dei- 'shine' Commented Nov 26, 2012 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.

  • 1
    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
    Commented Nov 26, 2012 at 17:30
  • "Snafu" is barely out of diapers, in word years. Give it time.
    – Hot Licks
    Commented Feb 2, 2015 at 22:52

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).


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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