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How language goes through ‘semantic bleaching’ — literally

The meaning of specific words can change over time. Take for example, the word "literally."

It used to mean to use the primary or ordinary meaning of a term or expression, or "in a completely accurate way." But now, people use that word much differently, to, say, describe something that is not actually literal.

This phenomenon is known as "semantic bleaching" — and it’s something Kelly Elizabeth Wright has been thinking about.

Wright is an experimental sociolinguist and lexicographer at the Virginia Tech College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences. She talked with The Show about it.

Conversation highlights

What exactly is semantic bleaching?

KELLY ELIZABETH WRIGHT: So in the most technical sense, it's like a loss of meaning. And when it a term has lost meaning, I think that this being a technical, a theoretical definition means that it is contested. So there's a question of whether we're talking about what meaning is what it means to lose something or if it's more like a diffusion in meaning or a reduction in intensity, but it has to do with how words evolve over time.

Is there a debate over whether or not this is a thing that happens or just exactly what it means and what it entails?

WRIGHT: OK. Great question. There is not debate over whether or not this happens. It's actually one of the older stable phenomena of change that was identified in our field. But it is, it is debated on exactly what it is ... if it's like an umbrella term for smaller processes or if it's like these other things are something else, right? Yeah ... can get into the nitty gritty so quickly because we really have this question of what meaning is at the center of what semantic bleaching is.

One of the the words that is often held up as an example of semantic bleaching is the word "literally," which people use constantly to mean things that are not actually literal.

WRIGHT: There are so many terms that sit at the center of this phenomenon. So something like "great," which used to only reference size. Or "awesome," which references like fear, like what we experience in the sight of God, or something like being in awe. We use that to apply it to all sorts of things. So "literally" ... its lost its — the literalness of its sense. It can be used figuratively.

So the the phrase itself, semantic bleaching, kind of implies a negative. Is this a bad thing?

WRIGHT: I think of this semantic bleaching as sort of what, what happens to like animal bones. You know, and like a Georgia O'Keeffe painting. we have, you know, it's just this white bleached, very natural thing that's been through a natural process. So I think it has something to do with that of like stones in a river getting weathered smooth. It's, it's that type of bleaching as opposed to like a chemical process or something that is about like active erasure.

Do you see some of these as sort of a natural evolution of language?

WRIGHT: I do. I — language, you know, evolves like all other natural systems. So I think about it in this way of, of bleaching being a very natural process. Something that represents the ways that language is constantly reinterpreted. It's constantly in motion. We see this language varying over time as different forms are in competition. Ss the a meaning diffuses across different groups of users who approach words with their own perspective.

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Mark Brodie is a co-host of The Show, KJZZ’s locally produced news magazine. Since starting at KJZZ in 2002, Brodie has been a host, reporter and producer, including several years covering the Arizona Legislature, based at the Capitol.