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learned borrowing


learned borrowing

Semantic Antics: How and Why Words Change Meaning by Sol Steinmetz (Random House, 2008)


A word based on a Greek or Latin root but with a meaning that did not exist in the classical language.

An example of a learned borrowing is the compound noun telephone, made up of the Greek words tele (from a distance) and phone (sound).

See also:

Examples and Observations:

  • "Webster's Dictionary of English Usage (1989) devotes almost five long columns to defending the use of enormity to denote a large or great size, as in The enormity of the task before us is daunting. The reason for Webster's defense is the insistence of many critics over the last hundred years that this word doesn't mean 'enormousness' but 'extreme wickedness.' Enormity was borrowed from Middle French énormité, a learned borrowing from Latin enormitatem 'divergence from norm, irregularity,' from enormis 'irregular, extraordinary, enormous.' . . .

    "Minister was borrowed from Old French ministre 'servant,' a learned borrowing from Latin minister 'servant, priest's attendant, subordinate.' . . .

    "The change in meaning from 'servant, assistant, subordinate' to 'high officer of the church or state' developed from the position occupied by the servants of leaders, rulers, and other persons of importance. . . . The ecclesiastical title minister of the church (literally, 'servant of the church') was early in use (1340). The political title first appeared in Great Britain in 1589, frequently in such phrases as minister of state, minister for foreign affairs, minister of justice, finance minister, prime minister."
    (Sol Steinmetz, Semantic Antics. Random House, 2008)

  • "Classical Greek learning had been preserved and built on by the Arabs; but for a long time it had been known in western Europe only through Latin translations of a few of its leading scholars such as Aristotle. Greek studies were taken up just at the time when scientific knowledge was expanding and scientific discourse was becoming a significant component in the functional domains of Standard English. So Greek became another source of learned borrowing, made easier by the fact that many of the Latin terms in use had themselves been borrowed (calqued) from Greek in earlier times; Greek words came readily into English alongside those from Latin. . . . The Greek term typically takes the abstraction up to an even higher level; it signifies its status as part of a theory, and therefore as an object of theoretical study: hence terms like entomic, entomophily and, as a branch of knowledge, entomology. Likewise hydro- for water (hydrogen, hydrolysis, hydrology), ornitho- for bird (ornithology) and so on."
    (Michael A.K. Halliday, "Written Language, Standard Language, Global Language." World Englishes 22[4], 2003)
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