Semantic specialization and extension

First case: An NPR announcer warns the audience,

(1) Spoiler alert!

Second case: a site for tourists in Ghent, Belgium (linked to in a comment on my recent posting on the city), that tells us,

(2) Ghent is divided into two quarters: the historic centre and the artistic quarter

On the first case. Hearing (1), I reflected on this special use of spoiler. Checking NOAD2, I saw a general sense for a N spoiler, with a meaning directly attributable to the suffix -er — ‘a person or thing that spoils something’ — plus a considerable collection of conventionalized meanings in specialized contexts, including:

[a] a description of an important plot development in a television show, movie, etc., before it is shown to the public [as in (1)]

[b] a device on the front or rear of a motor vehicle intended to prevent it from being lifted off the road when traveling at very high speeds

These are two distinct, but homophonous, lexical items, semantically united only by histories connecting them to the V spoil, especially in a sense similar to prevent: in [a], revealing an important plot development spoils the audience’s appreciation of the show, movie, or whatever; in [b], the device spoils the vehicle’s lifting off the road.

More spoiler items from NOAD2:

(especially in a political context) a person who obstructs or prevents an opponent’s success while having no chance of winning a contest themselves

a news story published to divert attention from and reduce the impact of a similar item published elsewhere

a flap on the wing of an aircraft or glider that can be projected in order to create drag and so reduce speed

an electronic device for preventing unauthorized copying of sound recordings by means of a disruptive signal inaudible on the original

The second case comes in two parts, the first involving semantic specialization.

NOAD2 gives a general sense for the noun quarter (historically from Old French quartier, from Latin quartarius ‘fourth part of a measure’) — ‘each of four equal or corresponding parts into which something is or can be divided’ — plus a huge collection of conventionalized meanings in specialized contexts, for instance:

(U.S. or Canada) a coin representing 25 cents

(in various sports) each of four equal periods into which a game is divided

The use to refer to one of four parts into which a settled area can be divided is then extended to reference to any distinguishable part of such an area, especially ‘a part of a town or city having a specific character or use’ (NOAD2). The result is things like (2), in which two quarters make a whole, not a half.

More detail from OED3 (Dec. 2007), where after two major sections under the N quarter having to do with things divided into four parts, we get:

III. Senses denoting position or place, and extended uses.

12. a. Region, district, place, locality. Freq. in pl.
The plural is sometimes used in much the same sense as the singular. [from Middle English on] [two representative cites:]

1855   W. H. Prescott Hist. Reign Philip II of Spain I. ii. vi. 517   The marquis..had left the place on a visit to a distant quarter.

1867   E. A. Freeman Hist. Norman Conquest I. v. 420   Troops flocked to him from all quarters.

[12.] b. Without reference to locality: a particular but unspecified area, person, or part of a community, esp. regarded as a source of something. [from 1685 on] [two representative cites:]

1970   T. Williams Let. 24 Sept. in Five O’Clock Angel (1991) 208   Audrey is in one of her..furies so no support can be expected from that quarter.

2006   Daily Tel. 24 Mar. 29/2   The idea, popular in some quarters, that, following the end of communism, all of Eastern Europe has devolved into a lawless sub-republic.

13. b. A division or district of a town or city, esp. that occupied by a certain group or community, or having a particular character or use. Sometimes with modifying word, as Chinese, French, Jewish, etc. [from 1526]

See the artistic quarter in (2) above. And

Liverpool, England is home to a large LGBT population and as well as having an officially recognised gay quarter, the city hosts the annual Homotopia (festival) (link)

3 Responses to “Semantic specialization and extension”

  1. Robert Coren Says:

    I’d expect to see something about the specialized use of the plural in “(living) quarters” (and see also the US Constitution’s prohibitions against the “quartering” of soldiers).

  2. Alon Lischinsky Says:

    Terry Pratchett played with this in the second Discworld novel: no god would dream of living outside the holy quarter [of Ankh-Morpork] or, as it had become, three-eighths (The Light Fantastic)

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