Langwidge Sandwidge, 12th October 2010
Zeltia Blanco-Suárez
University of Santiago de Compostela
[email protected]
On the origin and grammaticalisation of the intensifier deadly in English1
 Intensification is pervasive in everyday communication, since it is a very powerful
weapon to convince our interlocutor(s), and intensifiers are just one of these devices
used for the expression of exaggeration or intensification.
 Intensifiers refer to ‘any device that scales a quality, whether up or down or
somewhere between the two’ (Bolinger 1972: 17).
 On account of their quick loss of expressivity, intensifiers are ‘fashion victims’ and
hence are constantly being renewed. This makes them ideal for the study of language
variation and change.
 Aim: to trace the origin and development of the intensifier deadly in English.
 The online editions of the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) and the Middle English
Dictionary (MED).
 The Helsinki Corpus of English Texts.
 The extended version of the Corpus of Late Modern English Texts (CLMETEV).
For generous financial support, I am grateful to the following institutions: Spanish Ministry for Education (FPU
grant, reference number: AP2008-03626), Spanish Ministry for Science and Innovation and European Regional
Development Fund (grant HUM2007-60706), Autonomous Government of Galicia (grants 2008-047 and
3.1. Evidence from the historical dictionaries
 In origin, deadly (a. and adv.) was a synonym for ‘fatal(ly), mortal(ly)’:
(1) The snakes bite deadly, fatall are their teeth. (1627, OED, s.v. deadly adv. 1).
(2) Non of hem had dedeli wounde. (c.1300, MED, s.v. dedli a. 2).
 Deadly was not limited to the physical domain, but could also denote spiritual death:
(3) Þei seye þat wee synne dedly [F mortelement] in schauynge oure berdes.(c. 1425, MED,
s.v. dedli adv. 2).
 At a later stage, deadly gradually developed more subjective or affective meanings,
thus applying to qualities typically associated with death (e.g. paleness, darkness, or
silence), and could also be used with the meaning ‘to the death’:
(4) Kynge Marke wolde nat sende for sir Trystram, for he hated hym dedly. (c. 1470, MED,
s.v. dedli adv. 1).
 These subjective meanings have paved the way for the emergence of intensifying
meanings. As an intensifier meaning ‘extreme(ly), excessive(ly)’, deadly (adv.) is not
attested until the 14th century, and deadly (a.) is first recorded in 1660:
(5) I þat es sa dedli dill. (c. 1300, OED, s.v. deadly adv. 4).
(6) A deadly drinker he is, and grown exceedingly fat. (1660, OED, s.v. deadly a. 8a).
 Thus, deadly fits in the grammaticalisation clines observed in the literature: descriptive
adjective > affective adjective > intensifier (Adamson 2000); qualitative adverbs > boosters
(Peters 1994); ‘modal-to-intensifier shift’ (Partington 1993).
3.2. Evidence from the corpora
The HC
 67 tokens of deadly.
 Clear preponderance of descriptive meanings in the corpus (58 tokens; 86.57%) versus
subjective meanings (9 tokens; 13.43%). Substantial reduction of descriptive meanings
from OE to eModE (from 100% to 54.54%), and considerable increase of subjective
meanings in the same interval (up to 45.45%).
Table 1. Distribution of descriptive and subjective meanings of deadly (a. and adv.)
in the HC in the different periods.
Descriptive meanings
Life (2) lichoma ‘body, corpse’
(3), flesh (1), world (1), man (1),
list ‘cunning, skill’ (1)
Sin (27), life (5), wound (3), flesh
(1), man (1), slain (1), case (1),
land (1), creature (1), idoruen
‘hurt’ (1), fight (1)
Sin (4), weapon (1), wounded (1)
Subjective meanings
Ifoan ‘enemy’ (1), enemy (1),
foe (1), leor ‘countenance’(1)
Grief (2), enemy (2), feud (1)
 OE only registers descriptive meanings:
(7) & on ðissum deadlican flæsce he hine selfne æteowde.
and on
flesh he him self
(OE2. Cura Pastorialis R 52.405.31).
 ME records both descriptive and subjective meanings, with a significant number of
the descriptive collocation deadly sin:
(8) Hwa durste slepen hwil his deadliche fa heolde an itohe sweord up on his heaued?
who dared
sleep while his deadly
foe holds a drawn sword up on his head
(ME1. Ancrene Wisse P166)
(9) For sothe [‘truly’], synne is in two maneres; outher it is venial or deedly synne. (ME3.
The Parson’s Tale P298.C1).
 In eModE both descriptive and subjective meanings can be found.
 No intensifying meanings have been spotted in the corpus.
 Deadly (a.) clearly prevails over deadly (adv.), with a record of only three tokens.
 221 tokens of deadly.
 Wide variety of collocations of deadly in the corpus (sin, poison, peril, paleness,
enemy, white, sick, arrow, execration, Nitrous Gas, net, malignity, Gnome, malaria,
atom…), which might indicate features of grammaticalised elements, in that it can
combine virtually with any word:
(10) The fiend Ennui awhile consents to pine, There growls, and curses, like a deadly Gnome,
(1812. Rejected Addresses, Cui Bono? I).
 The vast majority of the occurrences have either neutral or negative connotations,
with only 2.71% of the total with positive meanings, albeit the overall meaning of the
sentence may be negative:
(11) There was a sad, a deadly charm still about the journey. (1920. The Happy Foreigner,
ch. XV).
 Prevalence of subjective meanings of deadly (57.92%) over descriptive meanings
(40.27%), and actual presence of intensifying meanings, yet very low (1.80%):
(12) He held up the deadly little dagger called the misericorde. (1870. The Caged Lion, ch.
 Deadly is more commonly found as an adjective modifying nouns than as an adverb
modifying adjectives/adverbs.
 The analysis of the data from the corpora and the historical dictionaries has revealed
the progressive subjectification and grammaticalisation of deadly over time.
 In OE only descriptive meanings were found; in ME these are still a majority, but
subjective meanings also begin to emerge. Finally, in eModE there is a significant rise
in subjective meanings, a process which is at its height in lModE.
 The paramount importance of religion and wars in medieval society accounts for many
of the collocates of deadly, including sin, wound(ed), slain, or weapon.
 Deadly seems to collocate in the main with items with a negative or neutral meaning,
while combinations with positive meanings are rare.
 Deadly (a.) and deadly (adv.) tally with the usual grammaticalisation clines:
descriptive adjective > affective adjective > intensifier and manner adverb > booster.
Adamson, S. 2000. A lovely little example. Word order options and category shift in the premodifying
string. In O. Fischer, A. Rosenbach, and D. Stein (eds.), Pathways of Change. Grammaticalization in
English, 39-66. Amsterdam and Philadelphia: John Benjamins.
Bolinger, D. 1972. Degree Words. The Hague and Paris: Mouton.
MED = Kurath, H. et al. (eds.). 1952-2001. Middle English Dictionary. Ann Arbor, MI: University of
Michigan Press. Online version. Available at:
OED. Oxford English Dictionary. 1989. (2nd ed.). Oxford: Oxford University Press. Online version
with revisions. Available at:
Partington, A. 1993. Corpus evidence of language change. The case of the intensifier. In M. Baker, G.
Francis, and E. Tognini-Bonelli (eds.), Text and Technology. In Honour of John Sinclair, 177-192.
Amsterdam and Philadelphia: John Benjamins.
Peters, H. 1994. Degree adverbs in Early Modern English. In D. Kastovsky (ed.), Studies in Early
Modern English, 269-288. Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter.
CLMETEV = Corpus of Late Modern English Texts Extended Version. 2006. Leuven: Department of
HC = The Helsinki Corpus of English Texts. 1991. Helsinki: Department of English.