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13 May 2008

The Semantically Bleached LBD

Don't ask me what I was doing listening to a fashion podcast clearly aimed at 40-year-old housewives in the Red States late last night. I didn't really pick up any tips - other than that people who call into blog talk radio are seriously hyperactive and/or weird (like the girl who sounded as though she was was high was puzzled as to why her "really expensive" jeans didn't fit her any more until she remembered she had lost 15 pounds recently...) - but I did pick up a great example of semantic generalisation.

Semantic bleaching sometimes arises as part of grammaticalisation, which is when full, lexical words lose their content and become functional words or even inflections on the end of words (so phrases like the Latin lenta mente (with a slow mind) became lentamente (slowly) in Italian). Often, though, there is no grammaticalisation but a word loses some of its semantic force and becomes more general over time.

The podcast lady said (while recommending "professional work dresses"):

A good little black dress or chocolate brown LBD is good too.

A chocolate brown little black dress... Of course, what happened is that when the hostess says, "LBD," she is thinking of it in terms of a bundle of features (+sexy, +elegant, +exquisite, +evening dress, -masculine, -homely, -casual) that together give off a vibe of elegance, sophistication and exquisiteness. For her, an LBD is an elegant, sexy dress that often happens to be black. For the hostess, though, the concept LBD doesn't have +black as one of its necessary and sufficient conditions, hence her description of the LBD being semantically odd but probably not contradictory (??"the brown dress is black").

The moral of the story is, of course, that although strangely compulsive, random podcasts might end up being a complete waste of time, you never know when you'll come across a great little gem.

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