Fun Etymology Tuesday – Borrowed words

Hello hello hello good people!
It’s Tuesday, and that means the time of Fun Etymologies is come!

Often, when words are borrowed from one language to another, they change meaning, sometimes even dramatically. We’ve already seen it happen in some past Fun Etymologies. However, some kinds of meaning change (or semantic change, as we linguists like to call them) are more frequent than others. Today, we want to introduce you to semantic narrowing: this is when a word which originally had a very broad meaning comes to mean something very specific, and it happens all the time in borrowing.

For example, take the Japanese loanwords “katana”, “kimono” and “sake”. In Japanese, these words mean “sword”, “dress” and “alcoholic drink”, respectively. When they were borrowed in English, however, their meaning became specialised: while for a Japanese speaker beer, wine and whisky are all “sake”, to an English speaker the word only refers to Japanese rice wine, for which they have a number of names depending on the variety; to a Japanese, a European medieval Zweihänder is as much a “katana” as what we call a “katana” in English, whose technical name should be “nihonto” or “daito”.

Another example is “sombrero”, which in Spanish simply means “hat”, but which was borrowed in English to mean a particular kind of wide-brimmed hat used in Mexico.

Narrowing also occurs within a language over time: the ancestor of the modern English word “hound” once simply meant “dog”, but today only refers to a specific set of breeds.
An extreme example is the word “deer”, which comes from Old English “deor”, which simply meant “animal”!

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