June 11 2013
An Analysis of Sharp
This paper presents an analysis of the English word sharp that follows the prototypical-
theoretical model of categorization and lexicography. The text will define both semasiological
and onomasiological approaches to this semantic analysis, as well as detail and explain the
results of this quarter’s research on sharp. In particular, various models for semasiology will be
explored, while an attempt of formal onomasiology will yield an interesting result proposing a
sociolinguistic, cultural influence.
The movement of cognitive semantics in cognitive linguistics began to emerge in the
1980s as a way to define language, holding that as a general cognitive ability, language in of
itself can only describe and perceive the world as it is categorized within people’s own
conceptual spaces. Focusing on meaning-construction and knowledge representation, cognitive
semantics argues that lexical meaning is foremost conceptual. However, in addressing the
question of categorization structure of word meaning, the prototype theory within cognitive
semantics has emerged, fueling the exploration of how language leads to change. Originating in
Eleanor Rosch’s psycholinguistic research on the internal structure of categories in the 1970s, the
prototype theory begins with the proposal that the “tendency to define categories in a rigid way
clashes with the actual psychological situation” (184). Prototypicality in this theory emphasizes
the flexibility of categories and demarcation of boundaries in definitions. Characteristics of
prototypicality can be divided into four main effects. The first describes categories as differing in
levels of typicality, or salience, and proposes that members may not be equally representative of
their respective categories. The second places categories into a family resemblance structure, a
“radial set of clustered and overlapping readings” (187). The third characteristic describes
membership uncertainty, that is, fuzziness around the boundary of what classifies as part of and
not part of a category. Finally, the fourth characteristic argues against the idea of defining a
category in a single set of attributes.
With the tenets of prototypicality as a basis for viewing category structure, semantic
development of a word can be displayed as a structure of growing variations from an initial
prototypical core. Semasiological analysis involves investigating a specific lexical item, and the
distinct types of referents or senses that stem from the core. Semantic expression in the expanded
senses is based on a variety of changes: literal similarity, metaphorical similarity, and metonymy.
This research project explored the word sharp, categorized into twelve main senses (although
there are many more and interrelated senses, for sanity’s sake, they have been summarized into a
more manageable number). Sharp originates in the Proto-Germanic skarpaz denoting “cutting”
to the Old English term scaerp meaning “cutting, keen, or sharp. ” Below is a summary of the
various senses of the adjectival form of sharp, with the duration of its relevance as a referring
term, as well as an example of its usage. Figure 1 also summarizes the vast array of concepts and
domains the word sharp has and is encompassing, from medicine, to food, to military terms.
1. well adapted for cutting or piercing; having a keen edge or point
a. having a keen cutting edge. (9a-19b)
a1400 Minor Poems from Vernon MS 758/38 "Deþþ draweth his sarpe knif"
1907 J.A. Hodges Elementary Photography (ed. 6) 106 "A good sharp penknife may be
b. having a tapering end brought to a fine point as to be used for piercing.. (9a-19b)
1484 Caxton tr Subtyl Historyes &Fables Esope Ixv "A bushel full of sharp thornes."
1774 O. Godsmith An history of the earth, and animated nature VIII 307 "Three very
c. sharp as a razor, as a needle (in similiative phrases) (11a-20b)
a1616 Shakespeare Cybmeline (1623) "to look vpon him, till the diminution Of space,
had pointed him sharp as a needle
1976 National Observer "Mrs. Owen... is not only as sharp as a tack...."
d. prickly (11a-17a)
1611 Bible Micah vii 4 "The most vpright is sharper than a thorne hedge"
2. Rough, rugged (9b-16a)
1574 E Hellowees tr. A de Guevara Familiar Epist "He commaunded to be made in the
moste sharp mounteines of Argos a most solumne Oracle."
figuratively a a1536 Songs, Carols, and Other Mis. Poems "Throw hade be sharpe & we
3. Acute or penetrating in intellect or perception
a. of persons or their faculties: intellectually acute, discerning, quick-witted (9b-
c1610-15 Lives Women Saints "What was more ingenious and sharp of witt than she"
b. of reasoning or discourse: acute. of remarks: pointed, apt, witty (16b-20b)
1623 Shakespeare & J. Fletcher Pleasures of Lit. "He alledged Many sharpe reasons to
defeat the law"
c. Of sight, hearing, the eyes or ears: Acute, keen. Often in figurative expressions
1821 Scott Kenilworth "The Queen's sharp eye soon distinguished Raleigh amongst
d. hence of observation, an observer; vigilant "to keep a sharp look-out" (16a-19b)
1535 Bible (Coverdale) Lamen. iv 18 "They laye so sharp waite for us, that we can not go
safe upon the stretes."
e. keen-witted in practical matters, smart, often unfavourable implications (e.g
sharp practice) (17b-19b)
1856 Dickens Little Dorrit "I have seen so much business done on sharp principles that I
am tired of them"
f. colloquial phrase "you're so sharp you'll cut yourself" used as a warning
implying over-cleverness (20a-20b)
1930 W.S. Maugham Cakes & Ale "You're so sharp you'll cut yourself if you don't look
4. Eager, impetuous, violent
a. or warriors: eager for battle (11a-15b)
1473 Caxton Recuyell Hist. Troye "that men of armes shold haue no wyues to thende that
they myght be more sharpe and fiers in the warre"
b. of feelings: keen, ardent (15b-17a)
1605 E Sandys Relation State of Relig. "Time-servers, who...follow Christ vpon a sharpe
devotion, but to his bread, not to his doctrine"
c. of conflict, an attack: carried on with vigor, fierce, keen (14b-19b)
1890 Spectator 3 May "Though the discussion will be sharp, it will be short"
d. of a storm, a shower, waves: heavy, violent (14b-16b)
1585 T Washington Nauigations Turkie "A sharpe showre of rayne, whiche contynued
vntyll the morning"
e. Of an attack of disease: acute, violent (17a)
1607 Topsell Hist. Fovre-footed Beastes "Of diseases, some be called long, and some
sharpe and short"
f. Of persons: hungry "sharp-set" or craving for food (appetite) (15b-18b)
1771 O. Goldsmith Haunch of Venison "Though my stomach was sharp..."
g. quick or active in bodily movement, brisk, energetic (15a-19b)
1889 Gretton Memory's Harback "After a sharp run, several hunting men baited their
horses at the Three Crowns"
5. severe, strict, harsh
a. of persons; severe or harsh in temper of mood, irritable (11a-17b)
1550 Vergil Eng. Hist. "He was werie sharpe in manners, sterne in nature, exceading
b. of persons and utterances: cutting in rebuke, invective, harsh (13a-19b)
1620 N. Brent Hist. Councel of Trent viii "The Cardinall of Loraine also wrote a sharpe
letter to the Pope"
c. of punishment, persecution, laws. severe, merciless (14a-19b)
1663 Patrick Parable of Pilgrim "This sluggish temper must be banished by a rigorous
and sharp penance"
d. "to be sharp upon" to be hard or severe ypon (16a-19a)
1678 T. Rymer Trag. Last Age "Polynices seems ill treated, and his Brother is much too
sharp upon him"
e. of pain, suffering, grief: keen, acute, intensely painful (11a-19b)
1722 Wollaston Relig. of Nature "Sharp, lancinating pains were felt most frequently in
f. said of a scourge (smart) (15a)
1450 Mirk's Festial "tTo ȝeue hym dyscyplyn apon his bare backe wyth a scharpe ȝerde"
g. of a mode of life: austere (14a-17a)
1588 Parke Hist. of Kingdome of China "They were certaine religious men who lived in
common, a sharpe and asper life"
a. Pungent in taste, having strong acid, alkaline, or caustic properties (11a-19b)
1617 F. Moryson Itinerary "a sharpe onion causing the eies to water."
b. of water, hold and scalding (17b-18a)
1742 W. Ellis London & Country Brewer (ed. 4) "Water lukewarm put over at first with
the Bowl, but soon after sharp or boiling water"
c. technical collocations as sharp vat for dyeing (vat containing a considerable
excess of lime) (18b-19b)
1886 Times 12 Apr 9/3 "Experiments of the Commissioners show that the 'sharp' gas of
the minres contains a larger proportion of marsh gas"
7. As a general term of approbation, (US slang)
a. excellent, fine (20a-20b)
1979 Arizona Daily Star (Advt secion) 20/3 "Sharp and roomy 4 bdrm split plan with
spacious modern kitchen"
b. of clothes: stlish, fashionable, smart, 'snappy'. therefore of the weare:: well-
1969 W. Ash Take-Off "When Jacques turned up, he was looking pretty sharp..."
c. of a motor vehicle: smart, well-equipped; in good condition (20b)
1970 Globe &Mail (Toronto) "Chevrolet convertible, fully equipped, a real sharp car"
a. Of sound: penetrating, shrill, high-pitched (14b-19b)
1810 Scott Lady of Lake "A sharp and shrieking echo gave, Coir-Uriskin, thy goblin
b. of an accent: bearing an acute accent (16b-17a)
1611 R. Cotgrave Dict. French & Eng. Tongues "Accent aigu a sharpe accent marked
c. Phonetics: used to express acoustic quality of high-front vowels (16a-19b)
1899 T.C. Allbutt Syst Med V11 "The voiceless group containing the sharp consonants"
a. Of a note: relatively high in pitch
b. of a note: singing or an instrument: above the regular or true pitch; too high
1880 Athenaeum "there was a Saturday a tendency to sing sharp, which was at times
10. With reference to form only (without implication of cutting or piercing)
a. tapering to a (relatively) fine point (14a-19a)
1616 Shakespeare Henry V "His Nose was a sharpe as a Pen."
b. ending in an angle, pointed, peaked, crooked (15a-17b)
1617 F. Moryon Itinerary "With a long visage and a little sharpe beard upon the chin"
c. of an angle: less than a right angle (16a-17b)
1594 T. Blundeville Exercises "For the one [angle] is right, and the other sharpe"
d. of an angle: abrupt, not rounded off; involving sudden change of direction (19a-
1877 Edwards Thousand Miles up Nile "A sharp turn to the right"
e. Of an ascent or descent, a rise or fall, abrupt (18a-19b)
1877 Huxley Physiogr xviii "A very sharp rise leads from the Pacific to the range of the
f. Of the shape of a vessel (nautical): Having a narrow and wedge-shaped bottom
1709 Dampier Contin. Voy. New-Holland "I would have...hal'd my Ship ashore...but my
Sharp being sharp, I did not dare to do it"
g. of features: emaciated, peaked, thin (19a-19b)
1865 J.G. Whittier Changeling "My face grows sharp with the torment"
11. Of the wind: almost dead ahead (17b)
1669 S. Sturmy Mariners Mag. "The Wind is sharp, hawl forward the main Bowline"
a. having angles or edges not rounded off or flattened: clear or distinct in outline or
contour. often immaterial sense of contrasts: not shaded off, strongly marked (17b-20b)
1855 Orr's Circ. Sci., Inorg. Nat "The chiselled margins of the pillars and cornices of the
latter, are still as sharp as when first carved"
1961 Millerson Techn. Television Production iii "Many simple photographic cameras
have no focusing mechanism...at a push of a button, they produce acceptably sharp pictures"
b. of a phenomenon, condition or state: having a narrow range of values of energy;
capable of graphical representation by a curve showing a sharp peak (20a-20b)
1971 Hodgson Nucl. Reactions "If the resonance is sharp...the cross-section due to the
resonating partial waves greatly exceeds that due to all the other partial waves"
Figure 1: Chart illustrating the number of domains the senses (on the left) of sharp can refer to, both literally and
In reviewing the senses, semasiological analysis can trace mechanisms for semantic
change, as well as chronological semantic expansion and expression. Three graphical
representations serve as ways to analyze and visualize the variations in sharp. Below in figure 2
is one type of analysis, representing the semantic change in the form of radial or chronological
steps from the prototypical core, the sense of being “well-adapted for piercing or cutting”.
Figure 2: Radial representation type of semasiological analysis.
One can see chronologically the expansion of senses from the core into various
categories. Note that there are a variety of ways to categorize and organize the semantic
expansion of any lexical item. One benefit of using radial steps is the additional advantage of
being able to document specific mechanisms of change for each expanding or emerging sense of
a particular word. Figure 3 shows interpretations of the mechanisms of semantic change or
expression. These can be categorized into three major types: literal similarity, metaphorical
similarity, and metonymical change. In Figure 3, examples of literal similarity are colored gray,
and are further divided into a variety of forms, including specialization, generalization, and
amelioration. Generalization describes an expansion of meaning, for example in the shift from
Figure 3: Mapping types of semantic change in the radial representation
“cutting or piercing” to a general “reference to form of being sharp without the implication of
cutting or piercing”. Further examples include that of Xerox in denoting general scanning of
papers, or Kleenex for tissues. Another type of is specialization, for example in specializing the
sense of “form” to “form” as a particular physics term. A second mechanism is that of metaphor,
most notably in the initial shift from the prototypical core to that of the figurative definition of
adapted to “piercing or cutting in perception.” A final type is that of metonymy, which is a shift
not based on similarity (as with metaphor), but based on contiguity or adjacency. One notable
example in the expansion of sharp is in the shift from the sense of “eager/violent” to that of
“energetic/abrupt movement.” This metonymical pattern may be classified as cause and effect or
antecedent and consequent, as the sense of “movement” is a result of having energy. The earlier
sense refers to the internal perception or feeling of energy or violence, while the extension into
movement becomes the result of that internal sense. Thus the new sense is a describing the
consequence of the initial perception.
Figure 4: chronological timeline of sharp
Another approach to graphically representing semasiological analysis is through a global
linear approach. Figure 4 displays a chronological progression and expansion of sharp. The rows
are divided into the aforementioned general senses, while the columns are separated into
centuries ranging from the 9th
. While data does exist in the 21st
century, the amount is not
extensive and has thus been omitted from the analysis. Each node represents the emergence of a
new sense, either in the first or latter half of the century. Each sense apart from the core meaning
is depicted as emerging from another sense, creating a web similar to the previous
semasiological analysis. However, while the previous investigation focused on the mechanisms
and specific types of change, this timeline analysis clearly depicts the growing variation of
meanings as time progresses.
One can first notice the core sense of sharp as being “well-adapted for cutting or
piercing,” as the node begins in the 9th
century and remains the core meaning until the 21st
century. The first major expansion can be seen in the latter half of the 9th
century with the
metaphorical change to “piercing in intellect.” In both semasiological analyses, one can visualize
the step-by-step progression and trace the course of change from one sense to another. In Figure
4, one can trace senses of “severe,” “violent,” “shrill,” and “above regular pitch” all to the
metaphorical extension of the core. Another major extension can be seen in the latter half of the
century with the emergence of the generalized change from the core to “referring to form
without implying cutting or piercing,” It is also interesting to note the 9th
century brief sense of
sharp meaning “rough or rugged,” referring to specifically mountainous terrain. While stemming
from the original core early in its history, it soon fell of favor, as seen in the node without
The advantages of using a global linear approach to graphically represent a
semasiological analysis includes allowing seeing the chronological expansion of sharp
throughout history, visually tracing where the literal, metaphorical and metonymical extensions
of the core emerged and the relationships between various senses. The chronological
representation also displays the length of time the sense remained an relevant meaning for sharp.
In this research project, a clear example can be found in the short-lived sense of sharp meaning
“rough or rugged.” However, the timeline analysis does not detail the types of changes that cause
these expansions. Thus in conducting semasiological analyses, it is beneficial to use a variety of
graphics, either in radial steps, in hybrid family resemblance blocks, or in a global linear
approacs, in order to visualize the results more completely.
Contrasting the semasiological approach to analysis is that of onomasiology. In this
method, given a particular referent, the onomasiological analysis holds that the most “likely
name for that referent from among the alternatives provided by the taxonomy will be the name
situated at the basic level” (200), that is, the core of the category, the most salient of the terms.
Thus, while both semasiology and onomasiology emphasize the concept of salience, the two
types of analyses approach word meaning from opposite sides. Semasiological variation focuses
and begins in the words naming the conceptual category and studies the concepts and meanings
it encompasses, while the onomasiological approach begins in the things that are categorized,
and explores the specific concepts that are salient in that referent. Figure 5 is a visual
representation of the relation between semasiological and onomasiological variations.
Semasiology moves from word to sense, while onomasiology moves from concepts and senses to
Figure 5: A visual representation of the interaction between semasiological and onomasiological
Figure 5 further divides onomasiology into two types: conceptual and formal. Conceptual
onomasiology extrapolates from the semasiological idea of salience to the onomasiological
domain, proposing that if a new concept is successful, it will become apparent and a cognitive
preference when given the choice of using a variety of category for a given referent. This idea of
onomasiological salience is also known as entrenchment, describing the frequency of use in
relation or context with something else. Entrenchment can be summarized in the following
formula: . Thus according to the conceptual onomasiological approach,
a referent is expressed in higher frequency by a category of which it is a more central member, or
a category with a higher entrenchment value (Euralex 82). Formal onomasiology explores the
competition between sociolinguistically marked alternatives, often between denotational
This research project used a formal onomasiological approach to compare the salience of
the word sharp in the concept of pain, both literal, physical pain and metaphorical or emotional
pain with a similar word, acute. In the sense of “severe or harsh,” sharp can be defined as being
harsh “of pain, suffering, grief: acute, keen, intense, or of experiences: intensely painful,” This
definition has given rise to such phrases as “sharp pain,” “sharp pang of jealousy,” or “sharp
misery.” Of the synonym acute, “of pain, pleasure: acting keenly on the senses or emotion; keen,
intense.” From this definition has arisen “acute pain,” “acute fever,” “acute inflammation,” and
“acute torment.” Research investigated and compared the salience of these competing terms in
the concept of ill-health and medicine. Using the Oxford English Dictionary specifically, sharp
was searched in both entry and quotation, and frequency was recorded per century. Careful note
was made to ensure the term was used exclusively in the sense of physical or mental pain by
setting search parameters to those within the category of science -> medicine. The same process
was used for acute. Figures 6 and 7 record the raw data and relative frequencies of the research
Figure 6: Raw data for referent frequency of sharp and acute by century.
Figure 7: Relative frequency in comparing use of sharp and acute
The figures above illustrate a drastic change in usage from preferring sharp to acute as
referents for the concept of pain. Sharp consistently remained significantly more salient from the
1000s to 1500s (the 1100s found no data for either sharp or acute). However, beginning in the
1600s, acute showed a slight increase in usage, changing frequency of use with sharp to almost
equal frequencies. However, the 1700s showed a significant rise in the salience of acute, one that
steadily increased to almost 90% by the 1900s as compared to sharp. Figure 8 is a graphical
representation of the data results. As opposed to the relative frequency, visualizing the raw data
allows the illustration of the rapid rise in the actual frequency of this term, not just the relative
frequency in comparison with the use of sharp. The 1800s show a quadrupling of results for
acute, while sharp shows a mild increase.
Figure 8: Graphical representation comparing sharp and acute
In reviewing the research results and investigating the sources for these referents, there
seems to be a cultural reason and change that directly contributes to these results. Beginning in
the 1800s, a majority of the sources of acute examples stem from scientific and medical journals,
describing symptoms of various ailments and diseases. In fact, most examples refer to physical
pain, while for sharp, it was an even distribution of referring to both physical and emotional
pain. There is a change in the meaning of acute in the concept of pain as referring to more
physical symptoms. One possible explanation may lay in the rise of technological and scientific
advances in the 19th
centuries. Rapid advances in medicine showed an increased use of
specific “scientific” terminology. In the case of comparing acute and sharp, acute seems to have
become a more salient referent in the realm of medicine, more accepted and used in the scientific
vernacular, while sharp remained a more colloquial and common term for referring to pain. Thus
with an increased focus on medicine as a whole and creating a scientific verbiage, acute seemed
to have become a much more salient term in the concept of pain.
The research project analyzing sharp concludes with a few observations concerning word
meaning. First, while exceptions naturally exist, words tend to begin with a literal meaning or
prototypical core, which through the progression of time and a variety of semantic changes
create an expanding category structure of extended meaning. As seen in the semasiological
analysis of sharp, what began in the 9th
century as defined in the sense of “well-adapted for
cutting or piercing,” through various literal, metaphorical, and metonymical changes produced an
array of interrelated meanings and new senses. The timeline analysis provided a way to view the
expanding senses chronologically, with meanings both dissipating and emerging throughout
history up into the latter half of the 20th
century. Finally, the project used the concept of salience
and prototypicality to describe the onomasiological perspective within a sociolinguistic context.
Research using a formal onomasiological analysis yielded interesting results comparing the
salience of sharp and acute in the specific concept of pain. The rapid increased use of acute
beginning in the 1800s was attributed to the rising scientific fields especially of medicine, in
which acute became a medical term used to describe types of pain, while sharp became less
popular as a term of science, but remaining as a colloquial term. Thus the rapid rise of acute can
be associated with a cultural change towards a focus on scientific reasoning and terminology.