Word Alchemy

  • Howard Richler
    How Happy Became Homosexual: And Other Mysterious Semantic Shifts. Ronsdale Press
Reviewed by Gabrielle Lim

The English language is continually changing and, in his seventh book on the subject, Howard Richler seeks to educate and entertain. He sympathizes with alchemists of the Middle Ages who could have easily turned lead into gold with a synonym chain, as he demonstrates with the opposites of black and white: “Black–dark¬–obscure–hidden–concealed–snug–pleasant–easy–simple–pure–White.” How Happy Became Homosexual outlines the semantic transformation of over 400 words, with changes that trace back hundreds of years as well as changes that are still in process.

Richler draws, appropriately, from literary works and references some of history’s most famous authors. Writers and poets, from Chaucer to Shakespeare to T.S. Eliot and beyond, have been essential to the documentation of language and, frequently, have been innovators of semantic changes. Perhaps the most well known example is Shakespeare, whose work both changed and created several word meanings, including “amaze,” “pride,” and “atone,” as Richler notes. More modern references range from films (the Matrix trilogy), novels (Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code), and current politics (both Stephen Harper and John McCain are mentioned). Richler’s modern references are more often used parenthetically (see “buccaneer,” which mentions the Pirates of the Caribbean film series) and are clear indications of his continual awareness of language.

While the research is comprehensive, the organization of the book is somewhat confusing. In his introduction, Richler outlines seven processes by which words change meanings: metaphor, generalization, narrowing, pejoration, amelioration, weakening, and strengthening. His chapter titles also serve as categories, and two are titled for the processes of pejoration and amelioration. He also has chapters for adjectives, nouns, and verbs, but the overlap with the pejoration and amelioration chapters creates confusion, or at least a lack of clarity. It would have made much more sense if the processes of pejoration and amelioration were mentioned under the appropriate terms as an explanation of how the semantic change occurred. “Uncouth,” for example, is in the adjectives section but its change in meaning from “a tad peculiar” to “uncultured” is certainly a downward movement. All words in the pejoration and amelioration chapters can easily be classified by their part of speech, and in some cases this seems more suitable; the semantic shift of “pudding” from something close to haggis to a dessert is not exactly a case of amelioration, for example.

The rest of the words are organized in six major categories: religion, animals and agriculture, people and groups of people, history and the military, discarded beliefs, and law. Each chapter has a brief introduction, and some contain terms that are not expanded upon in the chapter, but happily, are included in the book’s word index.

How Happy Became Homosexual includes many excellent examples of words that have undergone semantic change. They are sorted by lexical and semantic category, but not always by type of change. Though Richler, as a steadfast defender of the fluidity of the English language, provides more than enough information to delight and educate any logophile.

Word Alchemy

This review “Word Alchemy” originally appeared in Tracking CanLit. Spec. issue of Canadian Literature 220 (Spring 2014): 180-181.

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