Following the lead of literary criticism linguists have often adopted terms of rhetoric for other types of semantic change, besides metaphor and metonymy. These are: hyperbole, litotes, irony, e u p h e m i s m. In all these cases the same warning that was given in connection with metaphors and metonymy must be kept in mind: namely, there is a difference between these terms as understood in literary criticism and in lexicology. Hyperbole (from Gr huperballō 'exceed') is an exaggerated statement not meant to be understood literally but expressing an intensely emotional attitude of the speaker to what he is speaking about. The emotional tone is due to the illogical character in which the direct denotative and the contextual emotional meanings are combined.
A very good example is chosen by I. R. Galperin from Byron, and one cannot help borrowing it:
When people say "I've told you fifty times," They mean to scold and very often do,
The reader will note that Byron's intonation is distinctly colloquial, the poet is giving us his observations concerning colloquial expressions, So the .hyperbole here is not poetic but linguistic.
The same may be said about expressions like: It's absolutely maddening, You'll be the death of me, I hate troubling you, It's monstrous, It's a nightmare, A thousand pardons, A thousand thanks, Haven't seen you for ages, I'd give the world to, I shall be eternally grateful, I'd love to do it, etc.
The most important difference between a poetic hyperbole and a linguistic one lies in the fact that the former creates an image, whereas in the latter the denotative meaning quickly fades out and the corresponding exaggerating words serve only as general signs of emotion without specifying the emotion itself. Some of the most frequent emphatic words are: absolutely! awfully! terribly! lovely! magnificent! splendid! and so on.
The reverse figure is called litotes (from Gr lītos 'plain', 'meagre') or understatement. It. might be defined as expressing the affirmative by the negation of its contrary: e.g. not bad or not half bad for 'good', not small for 'great', no coward for 'brave'. Some understatements do not contain negations: rather decent; I could do with a cup of tea. It is, however, doubtful whether litotes should be considered under the heading of semantic change at all, because as a rule it creates no permanent change in the semantic structure of the word concerned. The purpose of understatement is not to deceive but to produce a stronger impression on the hearer.
Also taken from rhetoric is the term irony, i.e. expression of one's meaning by words of opposite meaning, especially a simulated adoption of the opposite point of view for the purpose of ridicule. One of the meanings of the adjective nice is 'bad', 'unsatisfactory'; it is marked off as ironical and illustrated by the example: You've got us into a nice mess! The same may be said about the adjective pretty: A pretty mess you've made of it!
Changes depending on the social attitude to the object named, connected with social evaluation and emotional tone, are called amelioration and pejoration of meaning. Amelioration or elevation is a semantic shift undergone by words due to their referents coming up the social scale. For instance OE cwen 'a woman'> ModE queen, OE cniht 'a young servant' > ModE knight. The words steward and stewardess (the passengers' attendant on ships and airliners) have undergone a great amelioration. Steward < OE stigweard from stigo 'a sty' and weard 'a ward', dates back from the days when the chief wealth of the Saxon landowner was his pigs, of whom the stigweard had to take care. The meaning of some words has been elevated through associations with aristocratic life or town life. This is true about such adjectives as civil, chivalrous, urbane.
The reverse process is pejoration or degradation; it involves a lowering in social scale connected with the appearance of a derogatory and scornful emotive tone reflecting the disdain of the upper classes towards the lower ones. A knave < OE cnafa \\ Germ Knabe meant at first 'boy', then 'servant', and finally became a term of abuse and scorn. Another example of the same kind is blackguard. In the lord's retinue of Middle Ages served among others the guard of iron pots and other kitchen utensils black with soot. From the immoral features attributed to these servants by their masters comes the present scornful ' meaning of the word blackguard. A similar history is traced for the words boor, churl, clown, villain.
Euphemism (Gr euphemismos from eu 'well' and pheme 'speak') is the substitution of words of mild or vague connotations for expressions rough, unpleasant or for some other reasons unmentionable.
Within the diachronic approach the phenomenon has been repeatedly classed by many linguists as taboo. This standpoint is hardly acceptable for modern European languages. With primitive peoples taboo is a prohibition meant as a safeguard against supernatural forces. Names of ritual objects or animals were taboo because the name was regarded as the equivalent of what was named. S. Ullmann returns to the conception - of taboo several times illustrating it with propitiatory names given in the early periods of language development to such objects of superstitious fear as the bear (whose name originally meant 'brown') and the weasel. He treats both examples as material of comparative semantics. The taboo influence behind the circumlocutions used to name these animals becomes quite obvious when the same phenomenon is observed in similar names in various other languages. There is no necessity to cite them here as they are given in any book on general linguistics. It should be borne in mind that taboo has historical relevance. No such opposition as that between a direct and a propitiatory name for an animal, no matter how dangerous, can be found in present-day English.
With peoples of developed culture, euphemism is intrinsically different, has nothing to do with taboo and is dictated by social usage, moral tact and etiquette. Cf. queer 'mad', deceased 'dead', perspire v 'sweat'.
From the semantical point of view euphemism is important because meanings with unpleasant connotations appear in words formerly neutral, as a result of their repeated use instead of other words that are for some reason unmentionable.
The material shows that semantic changes are not arbitrary. They proceed in accordance with the logical and psychological laws of thought, otherwise changed words would never be understood and could not serve the purpose of communication. The various attempts at classification undertaken by traditional linguistics, although inconsistent ( and often subjective, are useful, since they permit the linguist to find his way about an immense accumulation of semantic facts. However, they say nothing or almost nothing about the causes of these changes.