Diachronic semantic change in the lexical field of insanity

Posted on November 24, 2013 by

On Tuesday 26th November, LEL PhD student Mary Begley will be presenting some of her research at the Langwidge Sandwidge. The subject is Diachronic semantic change in the lexical field of insanity. Her abstract is below.

Interested parties are welcome to come and listen to Mary talk about her work in progress, and to offer encouragement, suggestions, and questions! The talk will be in Samuel Alexander A215 at 1pm, with the organizers taking Mary to lunch afterwards.


The lexical field of INSANITY has grown from a few dozen forms in Old English to thousands in Present Day English. A small part of my on-going PhD research, the present study investigates change in this lexical field focusing on one adjective in particular, wod. In Old English, wod’s onomasiological salience was strong. In the Middle English period, mad was first attested (related to OE gemæd) and there was a growing number of Latin, Anglo-Norman and Middle French loans into the INSANITY lexical field and into related fields such as FOOLISHNESS and ANGER. Wod is now rarely used save in Scots dialect.

This is a pilot study which uses a pragmatic, usage-based approach in line with Geeraerts (2002) and Geeraerts & Gevaert, et al. (2011). To this end, logistic regression tests are performed on data collected from the LEON 0.3 and the MEMT corpora to test the hypothesis that the decline of wod ‘insane’ is genre-dependent, in particular, that wod will decline significantly in scientific genres in relation to other genres.

The results suggest that the diachronic decline of wod is genre-dependent. However, the predicted decline is not seen in scientific genres. Rather, what is interesting from the genre point of view is that wod is strong in literary and religious genres.


Geeraerts, D. 2002. The scope of diachronic onomasiology. In: Ágel, V, & Gardt, A, et al (eds). Das Wort. Seine strukturelle und kulturelle Dimension. Festschrift für Oskar Reichmann zum 65. Geburtstag.

Geeraerts, D, Gevaert, C. et al. 2011. How anger rose: Hypothesis testing in diachronic semantics. In: Allan, K & Robinson, J (eds). Current Methods in Historical Semantics.