Many words in the English language have lost the intensity of their original meaning. For example, the word fantastic originally meant only existing in the imagination. But, nowadays, we often use the word to describe something that’s simply extremely good—hence the title of today’s article!
We call this change of use semantic bleaching or semantic weakening. Does this mean we’re using words like fantastic wrongly? In this post, we’ll take a look at some common examples of semantically bleached words and discuss their place in modern writing.
1. Literally: “To the Letter” or “Figuratively”?
Literally is perhaps the best-known case of semantic bleaching. When the word literal first appeared in the 14th century, it meant taking words in their natural meaning or interpreting them to the letter:
Wilma read the book in literally one day.
The literally in this sentence most likely means that Wilma indeed read a whole book within a 24-hour period. However, nowadays, the word literally is frequently used merely to add emphasis and isn’t meant to be taken, well, literally at all:
Fred literally couldn’t put the book down.
We don’t suppose that Fred has super-glued a book to his hands! Here, the word literally implies that Fred was enjoying the book so much that he didn’t want to stop reading.
2. Insane: “Mentally Unsound” or “Extreme”?
In the 1500s, insane was used to describe someone of unsound mind. Although this is still the dictionary definition of the word, it is now considered offensive to refer to people living with a mental illness as insane.
These days, insane is more often used to mean excessive or absurd. And the adverb insanely means to an extreme degree:
She drove at an insane speed.
I want to become insanely rich.
3. Awesome: “Inspiring Dread” or “Impressive”?
When I, in awesome wonder, consider all the works thy hands hath made.
—Stuart K Hine, 1949
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Everything is awesome, everything is cool when you’re part of a team.
—Tegan and Sara, 2014
There’s a huge difference between the original meaning of awesome and much of its current usage. As the song lyrics above show, at one time, the word awesome described things that produced overwhelming feelings of dread or reverence. It was most often used in a religious context, like in the hymn we quoted.
Thanks to semantic bleaching, we can now have awesome cupcakes, movies, parties, etc. Literally anything can be awesome! Not because cupcakes might fill us with feelings of reverential awe, but because awesome has come to mean simply impressive or very good.
4. Weird: “With Power to Change Destiny” or “Slightly Odd”?
Another word with a greatly diluted meaning is weird. Six hundred years ago, it referred to forces outside of the laws of nature that intervened in human affairs. It meant destiny or fortune. The “weird sisters” in Shakespeare’s Macbeth predict the future.
It’s possible that the strange and frightening appearance of Shakespeare’s witches—or weird sisters—brought about the more modern meaning of weird, which is odd or unusual:
Anchovies with banana is a weird choice of pizza topping.
I had a weird dream last night.
5. Terribly: “Causing Terror” or “Very”?
Terribly is one of many examples of once-powerful words that have been semantically changed into intensifiers (i.e., they simply emphasize whatever word comes next). While terrible used to mean horrifying or causing great fear, it’s now normal to see or hear phrases like “terribly nice” or “terribly good.” And although a terrible person might be very rude or unkind, they probably wouldn’t frighten us as the original meaning would suggest.
Other intensifiers that are the result of semantic weakening include incredibly, horribly, outrageously, and awfully. All of these are now used as alternatives to very. In fact, very is itself a semantically bleached word, which was used to mean truthful.
Summary: What Is Semantic Bleaching?
Semantic bleaching describes one of the ways in which language has evolved, resulting in a dilution of the original meaning of some words. In most cases, modern dictionaries reflect the new usage, so it’s acceptable to use words like fantastic and awesome to describe burgers, movies, or blog posts.
However, not all semantically bleached words have gained wide acceptance. For example, even though many people use the word literally when they really mean figuratively, and even though most dictionaries include this meaning now, there are still many people who consider it an error.
As a result, you should be careful about using this sense of literal (and similarly bleached words), especially in formal writing. If you’re sure your readers will be fine with a bleached usage in the context it’s used, then go ahead! Otherwise, though, we’d recommend sticking to the literal meanings of words!
Now that you know what semantic bleaching is, you might start to notice how many of the words we use have lost the power of their original meaning. Comment below if you can think of any we haven’t mentioned here. And if you’d like an expert to check your writing for misused words, our proofreaders can help. You can even try out our service by uploading your first document for free.