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  • English Historical Semantics by Christian Kay and Kathryn L. Allan
  • Janet DeCesaris (bio)
English Historical Semantics by Christian Kay and Kathryn L. Allan. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2015. Edinburgh Textbooks on the English Language. Pp. xi + 206. $120.00. ISBN 780748644780 (other formats available)

English Historical Semantics is a welcome addition to the Edinburgh University Press series of textbooks on English. Christian Kay (1940–2016) and Kathryn Allan are well known to scholars familiar with the Historical Thesaurus of English project that was developed at the University of Glasgow over many years and published as the Historical Thesaurus of the Oxford English Dictionary (Oxford University Press, 2009). The book provides an advanced introduction to the study of changes in word meaning in English.

The book is divided into ten chapters, each with subsections. The front matter includes a helpful list of abbreviations and conventions. All chapters except Chapter 10, which provides both a conclusion to the material presented and a look forward to possible research in the future, are followed by suggested exercises and further readings. Technical terms are defined in the text and appear in boldface type when introduced, and they are easily consulted in the Glossary. These useful features are common to other textbooks in this series.

The book is well organized as a textbook: the earlier chapters provide background information and explain methodology of analysis, and the latter chapters discuss data analyzed in the framework the authors present. The book starts out with brief introductions to the history of the English lexicon, the type of linguistic frameworks and analyses often used in historical lexical semantics, and the methodology the authors use to analyze the development of meaning in individual words. Expert readers will likely find this material too sketchy because of its brief length (e.g., Chapter 2 on the history of the English lexicon is less than 20 pages long), but the essential information is clearly presented and could easily be supplemented if necessary. I particularly liked Chapter 4 (“Tracing the development of individual words”) because it adeptly uses only a few words as examples (notably manga and monster) in discussion of the information provided in several dictionaries; this helps to focus the reader’s attention on the general issues being exemplified as opposed to the particularities of specific words. After setting the stage, the text turns to how and why words change meaning (Chapter 5) and how those [End Page 205] changes may be seen from broader perspectives, such as that found in a historical thesaurus (Chapter 6) or in the study of the relationship between language and culture (Chapter 8). Metaphor and metonomy, the subject of Chapter 9, are important to the historical perspective on changes in word meaning. Although not a co-author of the book as such, C. P. Biggam is credited as the author of Chapter 7, a case study of the development of color terms in English.

Throughout the text there are references to figures or events in specifically British history (e.g., Samuel Pepys, Nick Clegg, the decriminalization of homosexuality in the UK), but North American students will have no problems with the great majority of examples of English, which come from authors well known in all English-speaking territories (e.g., Shakespeare and Austen). As is to be expected of a textbook about English historical semantics, references to and discussion of the Oxford English Dictionary abound.

The book will be of interest to many readers of Dictionaries for several reasons. Understanding how word meanings develop and change over time is not only important to historical lexicography, where it is, of course, essential; it is also highly relevant to the discrimination and presentation of senses in a synchronic dictionary. The equally important topic of homonymy as opposed to polysemy recurs throughout the book, particularly in chapters 3, 5, and 10. Word-loving readers will enjoy the fascinating details of the many specific examples of meaning developments given, and college professors especially will appreciate the lucid discussion of those examples. To cite one instance, the authors describe the development in the latter half of the twentieth century of pejorative senses of cowboy, exemplified in “Clamping down on claims...


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