A weblog by Will Fitzgerald


The word of the day is subreption.

I asked the following question on the Linguist List:

Words like ‘to dial’ and ‘key’ and ‘album’ take on a shifted meaning as the underlying technology changes. Wordnet, for example, still defines ‘to dial’ as something like ‘to enter a telephone number using a dial.’ Of course, most dialing now occurs via push-buttons. Similarly, keys are now often made of a plastic card (or are completely virtual), and an ‘album’ can be a CD.

Is there a term of art for this kind of semantic shift?

Robin Barr responded with:

I’ve seen the term ‘subreption’ used for this type of change. The classic examples are ‘pen’ and ‘book’ — the items themselves have undergone cultural or technological changes, but the core meaning is still the same. I suppose you could also call this a special case of metaphorical transfer: the referent changes but the function or use stays the same.

Subreption is also used in Catholic canon law to mean the act of omitting evidence that should be presented, and thus surreptitiously making a case. It’s also used in Kant’s discussion of logical fallacies pertaining to metaphysics.

Along the way: A fun article on words like slob and dunce: A cultural-linguistic study of English sound-symbolic pejorative lexemes beginning in sl- and du-.


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