In Ireland, especially the northern province of Ulster, you will sometimes hear people say starved or starving to mean cold or freezing instead of the usual very hungry. Often it appears in a longer set phrase, such as starved/starving with the cold. And not just in Ireland: one source says the idiom exists in the Yorkshire dialect, while a recent political report quotes a French farmer saying: “people in Europe are dying and starving from the cold.”
Far from being innovative, the usage comes from a very old sense of the word. Starve is descended from the Old English word steorfan, meaning die – without implicit reference to the means of death – which came from the hypothesized Proto-Indo-European root *ster, meaning stiff or rigid. Ireland and a few other places have preserved this meaning of starve in colloquial expressions.
Etymonline tells us that in the 14th century the meaning of starve narrowed to “die of cold”, and later took on the more familiar senses “kill with hunger” and “die of hunger”. We see the early broader sense retained in German and Dutch, where sterben and sterven, respectively, are the cognate verbs for die.
The story of starve illustrates a common semantic process – known as narrowing, restriction, or specialisation – whereby a word’s field of reference contracts. For example, accident used to mean any occurrence, before it took on the more restricted sense of something that happens by chance, then something unfortunate that happens by chance: happening to happenstance to mishap. (Sometimes the different senses exist in parallel.) In the 20th century, accident gained a still narrower meaning: a child whose conception was not planned.
Similarly, an undertaker was any contractor: someone who undertakes to do work; centuries later it became more specialised, restricted to funeral undertaker. Girl used to refer to a child of either sex, deer meant animal, and meat (mete in Old English) was any kind of food. Affection was once a feeling in general; science, knowledge in general. Engine meant natural talent, ingenuity or clever device before the industrial revolution tied it more closely to a device producing mechanical power.
The meanings of all these words have narrowed to a more specific domain. Sometimes, too, the opposite occurs and words take on a broader sense; this is known as semantic broadening or generalisation. But that’s a discussion for another day.Email this Post