Cwellan in the Name of: A Diachronic Consideration of Synonyms for Killing in English

  • Gloria Madeleine Mellesmoen Simon Fraser University
Keywords: killing, semantic shift, English


Allo (2013) examined the retention of adjectives between Old and Modern English to determine that most frequent semantic shift was the loss of lexical items paired with the gain of new ones. The current paper takes a similar approach by conducting an analysis of the semantic change affecting the notion “to kill” between Old and Modern English and its connection to the state of the culture at a given time. It was expected that Old English possessed a plethora of synonyms for “to kill”, while the Modern English vocabulary lacks this lexical richness in denoting killing. I employ a corpus-based approach that relies upon dictionaries and thesauri, notably the Oxford English Dictionary and the Dictionary of Old English Web Corpus, to contrast the given number of synonyms within the vocabulary at each stage of the language. The analysis considered the selected vocabulary by pairing a progressive consideration of which Old English words have been retained and a regressive one by tracing Modern English lexical items to determine whether they are etymologically related to the older form of the language. Finding a significant disparity between the nineteen broadly applicable Old English words denoting killing and the singular perfect equivalent in Modern English, I argue that the lexicon of a language can encode insight into culture at a given point of time. Specifically, I suggest that the diminution of lexical items in English that denote killing as their primary definition reflects the shift from the warrior culture of the Anglo-Saxons to the general modern day focus on the minimization and avoidance of widespread violence.