Q: It seems to me that words weaken over time, though I’ve found an example where the trajectory is opposite. In Mansfield Park, Jane Austen uses “repulsive” to mean off-putting while it’s now a real nose-wrinkler: “She had not spirits to notice her in more than a few repulsive looks.” Is this an isolated case? And would a linguist use such terms as “weaken” and “strengthen” here?
A: Interestingly, “repulsive” had a positive medical sense when it first showed up in the early 15th century. It was originally a noun and an adjective for a medicine believed to repel noxious humors infecting a body organ. That sense of the word exists now only in historical references.
The term was borrowed into Middle English from two adjectives meaning able to repel: repulsif (Middle French) and repulsivus (medieval Latin). But the ultimate source is the classical Latin verb repellere (to repel or drive back).
The Oxford English Dictionary defines the original sense of “repulsive” as “repercussive,” a now-historical noun or adjective for a medical treatment “that drives a morbid humour, fluid, etc., back to its source or away or inwards from a swollen or diseased part; that suppresses an infection, swelling, eruption, etc.”
The earliest examples for “repulsive” in the OED are from Grande Chirurgie (circa 1425), a translation of a 14th-century Latin treatise on surgery by the French physician Guy de Chauliac.
In one citation, a “repulsyue” ingredient is included in a medicine said to resist humors infecting a kidney. In another, the recommended treatment is for medicines that draw fluids toward a body part, “and nouȝt repulsyues [nought repulsives].” The repulsives, as we’ve said, were thought to draw fluids away.
In the 16th century, the adjective “repulsive” came to describe the repelling or resisting of something or someone. The first Oxford example describes a bay tree’s supposed ability to repel lightning:
“The Baye tree is sildome harmed with the lightning … for so much as it hath thys repulsiue vertue of the lightning through the inner cause” (from A Contemplation of Mysteries, circa 1574, by Thomas Hill).
And here’s an example, which we’ve expanded, of someone who uses “denial, coldness of manner, etc.” to repel or resist someone else:
“Be not discouraged that my daughter heere, / Like a well fortified and loftie tower, / Is so repulsiue and vnapt to yeelde” (from The Blinde Begger of Alexandria, a 1598 comedy by the Elizabethan dramatist and poet George Chapman).
As you’ve noticed, Jane Austen uses that sense of “repulsive” in her novels. In Emma, for example, Frank Churchill uses it in the repelling sense after Emma speaks of Jane Fairfax’s reserve:
“It is a most repulsive quality, indeed,” said he. “Oftentimes very convenient, no doubt, but never pleasing. There is safety in reserve, but no attraction. One cannot love a reserved person.” Frank, as the reader later learns, is secretly engaged to Miss Fairfax.
The usual modern sense of the adjective “repulsive,” which the OED defines as “arousing intense distaste; disgusting, loathsome,” appeared in the early 1790s—two decades before Austen began publishing her novels.
The first OED example for the loathsome sense of “repulsive” is from The Siege of Belgrade (1791), an anonymous historical novel:
“As for Prince Czerskalkoi, though she found him repulsive to her nature, she yet could not wish him so great an evil, as that of being united to a wife who could not love him.” We’ve expanded the citation. The book is signed “The Translator,” and described as “An Historical Novel Translated From a German Manuscript.”
The older repelling or resisting sense of “repulsive” still shows up once in a while. The OED’s latest example is from 2008, but we’ll cite this one from Virginia Woolf’s novel Mrs. Dalloway (1925): “There was no bitterness in her; none of that sense of moral virtue which is so repulsive in good women.”
As for your question about terminology, yes, a linguist might refer to the loss or reduction of meaning in a word or phrase as “semantic weakening.” Other terms for such a semantic change include “semantic bleaching,” “semantic loss,” and “semantic reduction.”
And words do often strengthen over time. For example, the negative sense increased as the Old English læwede (lay, not in holy orders) became the Middle English læwed (unlearned), and the Modern English “lewd.”
However, linguists don’t see semantic change as simply the strengthening or weakening of a term’s meaning. Here are a few other ways in which the meaning of a word may change:
Narrowing—as with Old English mæte (anything edible), which eventually became the Modern English “meat.”
Widening—from the Old English haligdæg (a consecrated holy day) to the Modern English “holiday.”
Positive to negative—from the early Middle English aȝhefull (inspiring awe) to the Modern English “awful.”
Negative to positive—from the Old English prættig (crafty, sly) to the Modern English “pretty.”