How do words develop new senses?

Historical chaining for game (2)

Changes in the meaning of words have often been considered intractable. A new data-enriched formal approach use computational algorithms to predict the historical order in which the senses of a word have emerged(1):

Human language relies on a finite lexicon to express a potentially infinite set of ideas. A key result of this tension is that words acquire novel senses over time. However, the cognitive processes that underlie the historical emergence of new word senses are poorly understood. Here, we present a computational framework that formalizes competing views of how new senses of a word might emerge by attaching to existing senses of the word. We test the ability of the models to predict the temporal order in which the senses of individual words have emerged, using a historical lexicon of English spanning the past millennium. Our findings suggest that word senses emerge in predictable ways, following a historical path that reflects cognitive efficiency, predominantly through a process of nearest-neighbour chaining. Our work contributes a formal account of the generative processes that underlie lexical evolution.

Like the emergence of novelties, new word meanings seem to develop through an adjacent possible strategy.


(1) ‘Algorithms in the Historical Emergence of Word Senses | Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences’. n.d. Accessed 26 February 2018.

(2) Each node represents an emerging sense of the word game. The solid red circle marks the earliest sense recorded in the Historical Thesaurus of English (HTE). The arrows indicate the inferred path based on the nearest-neighbour chaining algorithm. The annotations include a gloss for each word sense and its recorded emergence point in the HTE.


  1. How might my attempts to redefine the meaning of the word ‘phlyarologist’ fit into this? — The dictionary defines ‘phlyarologist’ as ‘one who speaks nonsense’, but I maintain it should be ‘one who studies nonsense’ 🙂

    • I must confess that, when I discovered the word phlyarologist in your blog, I got impressed. You seem to be a pioneer by chaining the two (related) meanings. Now you only need more people using that word. I’ll try to do it asap. Shouldn’t be too difficult given my own choice of “themes”, if you know what I mean…

      • Thank you for the confidence builder. I simply got lucky, choosing a word that hadn’t been used for decades, and attempted to redefine it. Google seems to think I’ve succeeded 🙂

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