Unit 1: The Growth of the English Vocabulary

Unit 1: The Growth of the English Vocabulary

This unit:

  • Introduces two major resources for studying vocabulary.
  • Shows how vocabulary grows.
  • Discusses change of meaning.



The English language was first brought to Britain in the fifth century A.D. by settlers from the European mainland. This stage of the language is usually known as Old English (OE). In the following centuries, it was subjected to various influences which made it the language it is today. These can most clearly be seen in the vocabulary of the language, which reflects the influence of a range of other languages.

The first of these external influences, and probably the most important, was the Norman conquest of 1066 A.D., which led to large numbers of French words being imported into English. Words were also borrowed from Latin, the language of European scholarship, and their number grew during the Renaissance period in the 16th and 17th centuries. From about this time, through trade and colonisation, words were borrowed from other European languages, such as Spanish and Portuguese, and from languages in far-flung places such as Africa, India and the Americas. This process has continued up to the present day, and at the same time words from English-speaking areas, especially the United States, have been added to our vocabulary.




1.1 Words for Red

You can see this process at work by looking at groups of words for a particular concept such as Colour. The words below are taken from the Historical Thesaurus of English (HT) project at Glasgow University, which lists words from Old English to the modern period according to the concepts they express.

Like many basic words, the general adjective red goes back to an OE word, which had the slightly different form read. Thereafter, many new words were added to the language. For example, to express the concept of Bright red/scarlet, we find the words below (and many more). The date after each one is the date when it was first recorded in the language. The 'c' before some dates is the Latin word circa meaning 'approximately' - we often cannot be sure of the dates of older sources. 

Words for Bright red/scarlet

scarlet, c1386; vermeil, c1400; cherry, 1447; coral, 1513; vermilion, 1589; wax-red, 1592; vermil, 1592; cherry-red, 1594; miniaceous, 1688; cherry-coloured, 1695; coral-red, 1700; cherried, 1760; puniceous, 1730; poppy-coloured, 1791; geraniumed, 1819; miniatous, 1826; vermilion-coloured, 1835; geranium coloured, 1836-9; lobster-red, 1856; phoenicean, 1857; pink, 1857; magenta, 1875; cardinal, 1879; camellia-red, 1890; nasturtium-red, 1896; sealing-wax, 1907; tomato, 1920.

What can we learn from such a list?

  • Colour words often refer to objects in the natural world, such as plants and animals. Some of these are obvious, such as cherry-red or lobster-red, but others are 'hidden' by the fact that they come from other languages. Vermilion, for example, comes from a Latin word meaning 'little worm', and referred originally to a dye made from insects. You can find out about the origins of words by looking in a dictionary which gives their etymologies. For an online etymological dictionary, see www.etymonline.com.
  • They may refer to other objects, such as the red of a Cardinal's robe or the colour of sealing-wax. The rather unusual words miniaceous and miniatous describe the colour of minium, red lead.
  • They may come into the language as colour terms some time after the object itself becomes well-known, as in the case of camellia or nasturtium. If the object stops being significant in society, the word may cease to be used, since speakers no longer make the connexion between object and colour. This may well happen to sealing-wax as a shade of red, since sealing-wax is a commodity not much used nowadays.
  • Words can become well-established in a language, as in the case of scarlet, borrowed from French in the 14th century. Others may never pass into general use, and may eventually disappear. Puniceous, for example, is recorded only once, and apparently refers to an ancient people with reddish skins. Miniaceous and miniatous are also rare, occurring only in specialized contexts.
  • Words can change their meanings or develop new meanings. For example, you may be surprised to find pink in a list of words meaning 'bright red', but this refers to the scarlet coats traditionally worn by huntsmen. Earlier, pink could also refer to a greenish-yellow dye.
  • In addition to borrowing words from other languages, English can express new ideas by forming compound words, such as wax-red or cherry-coloured.



a) Speakers often disagree about what colour words mean. Are there any words in the above list which surprise you? Are there any words you would like to add? Do words like nasturtium-red or cherry-red mean the same to your friends, or to people of a different generation, as they do to you?

b) One fertile source of new colour words in English is the fashion industry. Have a look at a source such as a fashion magazine and see if you can find any interesting words for colours and trace their origins. 

c) Access the Historical Thesaurus of English database

  1. Click on Search Menu
  2. Choose Synonym Search
  3. Enter word: red
  4. Choose Heading: Colour
  5. Choose Redness: redness
  6. Click View Synonyms
  7. Scroll through the words, noting any that exemplify the points made above. 

d) Try a similar search for Deep red/crimson or Pale red/pink, or any other colour which interests you. 

e) Choose a completely different section and use the Synonym Search to look at how the vocabulary has developed. For example, you could look at one of the sections in Sport, such as Football or Cricket, and find out when these terms entered the language.




1.2 Individual words

Individual words can have interesting histories. Many have changed their meanings across time. Studying such changes can often reveal the social or intellectual factors which brought them about.

The best source of information about the histories of individual words is the Oxford English Dictionary (OED), which charts their development from their earliest use onwards. The online version of this dictionary is available at most universities and in many public libraries and schools. If you want to find out more about how to access it, contact Oxford University Press.

The OED site contains a lot of interesting information about the OED, as does Dr Charlotte Brewer's site, Examining the OED.

As an example of the kind of information in the OED, take the word girl. It is first recorded in English in the late thirteenth century, when it means, according to the OED, 'A child or young person of either sex'. Boys were referred to as 'knave girls' and girls as 'gay girls'. Later on, in the sixteenth century, its meaning narrowed to refer only to young females, as the word does today. By the next century, it had developed two further meanings, 'a maid-servant' and 'a sweetheart, lady-love', which perhaps tells us something about the roles often occupied by young females, as does its development in the next century, when it came to mean a mistress or a prostitute. More recently, it has developed other meanings, as in 'old girl' as an affectionate (or disrespectful) form of address. Words often change meaning by narrowing their range in this way, frequently in a negative (pejorative) direction.

The word boy follows a roughly similar path from young person to servant, and also refers to military personnel. Its main pejorative use, however, is 'ruffian, rogue'.





f) Although girl and boy are basic words in our language, their meanings are not clear-cut. Is a person of 15 or 20 or 25 a girl/boy or a woman/man? Think about how you yourself use these terms, and find out whether other people agree with you. You might also like to think about other terms describing human ages, such as child or the adjectives old and young as applied to people. Can you think of any reasons why we should be vague in our usage of such terms?

g) Access the Historical Thesaurus of English database:

  1. Click on Search Menu
  2. Choose Synonym Search
  3. Enter word: girl
  4. Choose Heading: Mankind
  5. Choose Girl: girl
  6. Click View Synonyms
  7. Repeat the search using boy and compare the results.
  • Are terms being borrowed from other fields such as Animals or Clothing to describe young people?


1.3 Metaphor

In the course of their histories, many words develop metaphorical meanings. Some of these are striking poetic metaphors which offer new insights into things and may occur only once. Others are much more widespread and enable us to discuss abstractions by making reference to properties of things in the material world. These are often so well-established that we are scarcely aware of them as metaphors. For example, we can discuss people's intelligence or lack of it by using words such as bright, sharp, dull, thick, and so on, which originally referred to light, the edges of objects, and texture. Similarly, words expressing the concept of Anger are often metaphors from the field of Heat. People don't literally boil or steam or explode when they are angry, but using these words metaphorically helps us to explain the qualities of the feeling. Being aware of such metaphors can increase one's appreciation of a literary text.

A work such as the Historical Thesaurus offers two ways of exploring such metaphors. Firstly, you can look at a section where you would expect to find metaphors, such as the Intelligence section or the various sections to do with Emotions. Alternatively, you can look at sections which are likely to be the source of metaphors and then check what other sections they turn up in.





h) Access the Historical Thesaurus of English database:

  1. Click on Search Menu
  2. Choose Synonym Search
  3. Enter word: angry
  4. Choose Heading: Anger
  5. Choose Anger: angry
  6. Click View Synonyms
  • You will see that angry is first recorded in the fourteenth century. How many words after that use the metaphor of Heat?

i) Repeat the search using cold and compare the results. Explore some other headings listed under Cold, such as Discourtesy or Self-Possession, where you might expect to find metaphorical expressions. To what extent is the metaphor of Cold used?

j) Use the Browse facility, which enables you to scroll through all the words in a section. Choose an abstract section such as Happy or Sad and identify any recurrent metaphors.




1.4 Why does history matter?

If you are a student of literature, it is important to be aware that words change meaning over the years. Otherwise, the original meaning of the text may be lost. The extract below comes from Act 1, Scene 1 of William Shakespeare's Hamlet, written around 1602. Horatio is describing the appearance of Hamlet's murdered father on the castle battlements at Elsinore. 

And then it started like a guilty thing
Upon a fearful summons. I have heard,
The cock, that is the trumpet to the morn,
Doth with his lofty and shrill-sounding throat
Awake the god of day; and, at his warning,
Whether in sea or fire, in earth or air,
The extravagant and erring spirit hies
To his confine: and of the truth herein
This present object made probation.

This quotation comes from the online edition of the plays at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Most of the words in this extract will be perfectly familiar to a modern reader. However, we might be puzzled by extravagant and erring, interpreting them as 'spending too much' and 'going wrong', neither of which seems particularly appropriate for the ghost. In Shakespeare's time, both words had the more literal meaning of 'wandering, straying, roaming', which is exactly what the ghost was doing. Extravagant was a new word, borrowed from French in the late 16th century in several different meanings. The OED records Shakespeare as the first user of the word in the meaning above; he uses the word in the same meaning a few years later in Othello. Our modern meaning of 'spending too much' isn't recorded until the 18th century. Erring, on the other hand, would have been a familiar word to Shakespeare's audience. By using both words together, he may have been helping the audience to understand the new word.

Two other words which may seem familiar, but not quite in the sense we expect, are confine, in the sense of 'place of confinement', first recorded in Shakespeare's Sonnets, and probation, which here means 'proof, demonstration'.

Shakespeare's language will be discussed further in Unit 3.




Further study

Baugh, Albert C. and Thomas Cable (2002). A History of the English Language. London: Routledge.

Smith, Jeremy (2005). Essentials of Early English. London: Routledge.

For further information on the development of English colour terms, see the Unit on Colour in Learning with the Online Thesaurus of Old English.

For an overview of thinking about metaphor, see:

Kovecses, Zoltan (2002). Metaphor: A Practical Introduction. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

The book on which much recent thinking about metaphor is based is:

Lakoff, George and Mark Johnson (1980). Metaphors We Live By. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.