A Semantic Analysis of Bachelor and Spinster

Seminar Paper, 2003

12 Pages, Grade: 2,0 (B)



1 Introduction

2 Bachelor and spinster today

3 The lexical item bachelor

4 The lexical item ´spinster´

5 The differences between bachelor and spinster

6 Summary

7 Bibliography:

1 Introduction

The following pages will discuss the semantic differences between the words spinster and bachelor. Therefore I will take a closer look at their origin, their different lexical meanings and the different ways of defining their meaning.

2 Bachelor and spinster today

When one looks up the word bachelor in any ordinary dictionary today, one will most likely find a similar definition as in Oxford Advanced Learner´s Dictionary (Wehmaier 2000: 74)

Bachelor: 1) a man who has never been married. An eligible bachelor (=one that many people want to marry, especially if he is rich). A confirmed bachelor (= a person who intended never to marry, often used in newspapers to refer to a homosexual man). A bachelor flat (= one suitable for a person living alone).

For the word spinster, the Oxford Student’s Dictionary (Ruse 1988: 608) suggests:

Spinster: 1)An unmarried woman, esp an older woman.

So on the first look, the definitions seem to be very similar. The following pages though will reveal that there are indeed significant differences in the words themselves and also in their comparison.

3 The lexical item bachelor

The first and today’s most often used definition of bachelor was already mentioned, but for example on http://www.yourdictionary.com/ three more definitions are presented:

1. An unmarried man.
2. A young knight in the service of another knight in feudal times.
3. A male animal that does not mate during the breeding season, especially a young male fur seal kept from the breeding territory by older males.
4. A person who has completed the undergraduate curriculum of a college or university and holds a bachelor's degree.

As one can see, these are quite different definitions which are worth to be analysed more precisely. Scheler (1977: 82), who gives an etymological categorization, states that all these definitions derive out of the Latin word ´baccalarius´, which meant ´labourer on an estate´.

Meaning one came up around 1300 and is according to Goddard (1998: 31) not a very precise meaning of the word though, because he says “priests are not bachelors although they are unmarried men […] (and therefore) someone who genuinely doesn’t know the word would be misled.” In this case it also implies some kind of eligibility to get married, which is not clear by definition. This definition is the mostly used one today and almost all example sentences in the British National Corpus revealed the same definition as in example (1):

(1) The best stories, though, are perhaps the first, about a middle-aged bachelor farming alone after his mother dies, and the last, about a member of the village brass band picking up a woman on a bus trip to Venice. (A36 270)

The second definition “a young knight, a novice in arms” (Scheler 1977: 82) also arose around 1300. Both definitions describe the first state of a man in society after adolescence. This connection between the basic concepts might lead to the assumption that they are polysemes; “A case of POLYSEMY is one where a word has several very closely related senses.” (Hurford/Heasley 1983: 123). The important part in this comparison though is that it is precisely made clear that it is a young knight, but not a young unmarried man. The unmarried man therefore can be 100 years old and still be a bachelor. Still they have the same background as their meaning is related. People today though will most likely, due to a semantic change, not regard this second definition as appropriate. According to Campbell (1998: 268) it is no surprise that “polysemous forms may lose one (or more) of its meanings.” In this case it is very obvious why that happened, “historical factory outside of language have also been considered important causes of semantic change”. (1998: 296), in this case a change in society and the standards of living, in short: there are no knights anymore, so there is no need for this definition except for literature purposes as in the example (2):

(2) So did those Gascon nobles who were retained with fees or pensions in the king's household.| In June 1286, there were forty Gascons in Edward I's household, including four knights banneret, three knights bachelor and twenty-one king's esquires.| Among those receiving liveries of robes from Edward III for the winter of 1330, at least seventeen Gascon knights and esquires are recorded as members of his household.| There was therefore a group of`aliens" among the king's familiares which long outlived the political turmoil of Henry III's reign. (EBP 277)

The third meaning evolved out of the first meaning in 1874 (cf. Scheler 1977: 82) and somehow projects the “unmarried man” on the animal world. The fur seal is without a partner and the “unmarried man” as well. The words have the same background and are therefore again polysemes, although there are again differences. For example that they belong to a different class; humans and animals.

The fourth meaning is again somehow connected with the first stage of life after adolescence, because it describes a man who has taken the first university degree. Usually one gets the first degree in one’s early years after adolescence. The word already came up in 1362 for a man and finally the expression was also applied to a woman in the 20th century. (cf. Scheler 1977: 82). There are of course a lot of different types of Bachelors, because of the great variety of University subjects, some examples are mentioned in example (4):

a. He eventually graduated as a bachelor of astrophysics at London University. (ALV 1501)
b. Bachelor of Combined Studies (GUV 338)
c. A Bachelor of Education course lasts three or four years. (C8B 138)
d. Christopher Illert, Bachelor of Science (CB9 1007)

To distinguish these different meanings even more precisely Katz and Foder applied a system which allowed them to categorize semantic markers. The semantic marker is part of the componential analysis or also called feature analysis and “this involves the analysis of the sense of a lexeme into its component parts.” (Lyons 1981: 75). Before I will present their idea of categorizing the word bachelor, I will now first explain the background of this theory:

The assumption in this theory is that “every listeme is analysable into one or more semantic components […] (and also that) listems that share semantic components are semantically related .” (Allan 2001: 269). He regards a listeme as “a language expression whose meaning is not determinable from the meanings (if any) of its constituent forms and which, therefore, a language user must memorize as a combination of form and meaning.” (2001: 6). A very simple example to explain the feature analysis would be John Lyons´ (1981: 76)


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A Semantic Analysis of Bachelor and Spinster
University of Freiburg  (English Seminar)
Proseminar Semantics
2,0 (B)
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ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
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559 KB
Semantic, Analysis, Bachelor, Spinster, Proseminar, Semantics
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Dominik Wohlfarth (Author), 2003, A Semantic Analysis of Bachelor and Spinster, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/20486


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