Joan Bybee and Carol Lynn Moder
University of New Mexico and Oklahoma State University
Bleaching as a type of semantic change is often mentioned in works on grammaticalization, but very few studies focus on how bleaching occurs. The literature on hyperbole as a figure of speech notes that hyperbolic uses lead to weakening or bleaching of meaning. Using data from COHA, COCA and SOAP from 1910-2020, we examine the recent and current changes in use of the verb GRAB in American English. Example (1) shows that the early (original) uses of GRAB carry the meaning of getting or taking quickly or suddenly and / or with eagerness and urgency. In a small, but growing number of tokens of current usage, the meaning seems to simply be ‘get’ or ‘take’, as in (2):
(1) Flames licked up from the pump shed. The men ran for the horse trough and grabbing pails of water, raced for the pumphouse. (COHA 1960)
(2) (sunscreen)…a thousand of them on the market, how do you know which one to grab? (COCA 2015)
The 600+ tokens of GRAB examined illustrate several features of the bleaching process for a lexical item. (1) Bleaching occurs gradually but at different rates within specific prefabricated expressions and constructions. (2) The aspects of the original meaning that are bleached are the more subjective aspects (quick and urgent). (3) The semantic outcome of bleaching is highly determined by the interactional contexts it is used in, especially requests and other recruitment formats. It remains to be seen whether these features of bleaching also apply to semantic change in grammaticalization.