DEGENERATION and ELEVATION of meaning
Another semantic change consisting of degeneration of meaning is observed in large number of English words. A word may degrade or deteriorate in status and come to mean something worse than originally denoted. This process is called degeneration or catachresis. the adjectives crafty and cunning were both attributes of praise in early English, while at present, they have a derogatory sense. Similarly we find words like lewed(lewd),wantowne(wanton), and vileyenge(villainy) used by Chaucer in none of the indecent implications suggested today in modern English. A lewd person was merely an ignorant member of the city as opposed to the learned clergyman. A wanton person meant a gay one, and a harlot was a base fellow or a vagabond. Vileyenge only meant something unworthy in a gentleman or something characteristic of a villain or a slave serving in a villa. The word ‘fiend’ is another that has undergone degeneration in meaning. It is from the Old English word ‘feond’which only meant notorious or foe.. The word ‘lust’ originally meant only pleasure and gossip is derived from Old English. ‘godsib’ meaning relating to God . Later it was applied to ones Godparents and still further it got the meaning of sponsor, companion, and confidant and finally the sense attributed to it was that of a ‘babbler’.
The opposite phenomenon of the same is called elevation or amelioration of meaning where in the process of change the word rises in status and there is an elevation in the sense. The word ‘fond’ has risen in elevation from its meaning of foolish to affectionate. The word success changes its meaning from success to favorable success. ‘Knight’, which in Old English meant servant or lad has been progressively undergoing change with elevation of meaning till it ahs come to mean a nobleman with a title.