LINGUIST List 14.637

Wed Mar 5 2003

Disc: New: "Deflation" and "Inflation"

Editor for this issue: Karen Milligan <>


  1. Ben Zimmer, "Deflation" and "Inflation"

Message 1: "Deflation" and "Inflation"

Date: Tue, 4 Mar 2003 05:27:07 -0600
From: Ben Zimmer <>
Subject: "Deflation" and "Inflation"

A recent discussion on the science language newsgroup has brought to
light considerable ambiguity surrounding the terms "deflation" and
"inflation" as used in a linguistic context. There appear to be two
diametrically opposed schools of thought on how to apply these terms.

One school of thought uses the terms according to a simple "balloon"
metaphor: "inflation" increases a linguistic form's semantic/pragmatic
value (however defined), while "deflation" decreases it. A recent
example of this usage is Geoff Nunberg's NPR commentary on the
"semantic deflation" of the word "legend", now used in American media
for just about any celebrity: 
Dwight Bolinger used the term "deflation" in a similar manner, for
instance in "The Deflation of Several" (Journal of English
Linguistics, 1981, 15:1-4) on the shift in meaning of the word
"several" in American English from "a small but respectable number" to
"a few".

The countervailing school of thought interprets the terms in precisely
the opposite way, based on an analogy to economics. "Deflation" is
defined by economists as a rise in the value of money and a fall in
prices, and "inflation" as a fall in the value of money and a rise in
prices. By analogy then, "deflation" is taken to mean a rise in
semantic/pragmatic value (again, however defined) for a particular
form. Conversely, "inflation" implies a fall in the value of a form--
on the economic model, the form no longer has the same symbolic
"buying power". This view has recently been articulated by �sten Dahl
in his article, "Inflationary Effects in Language and Elsewhere" in
_Frequency and the Emergence of Linguistic Structure_, Joan Bybee and
Paul Hopper, ed. (John Benjamins, 2001):

I would be interested to hear opinions on these terms and their proper
application to linguistic phenomena. I would also like to know of
alternative descriptors that might be seen as preferable, in order to
avoid possible confusion over the opposing senses of "de/in-flation".
Dahl, for instance, also uses the terms "(rhetorical) devaluation" and
"revaluation" to describe these processes. Two related pairs of terms
are "pejoration" vs. "amelioration" and "degradation" vs. "elevation",
though these seem to be used for a more narrowly defined set of
phenomena (particularly, the rise or fall of a form's "positive
connotations", rather than more broadly construed spheres of
semantic/pragmatic value such as formality, politeness, or

Ben Zimmer
University of Chicago/UCLA

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