Changes in word usage and meaning in the English language


As new generations change their views and morals they are also changing language to reflect this and therefore language changes can be seen to be transformed more dramatically with the beginning of each new generation.

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The acceptable language and views of each new generation were not necessarily acceptable in the older generations and therefore language changes to incorporate this. An example of how new generations find it permissible to do what older generations did not can be seen in relation to the issue of swearing.

While older generations did not find swearing permissible, and it was met with outrage if it was heard, newer generations find it permissible to hear it in everyday contexts such as on television and in movies. The word ‘fuck’ is now acceptable to new generations in society whereas in the past it caused considerable outrage and scandal, as can be seen when it was first said on television by Kenneth Tynan in 1965. Form the 1980’s onwards many films have contained this word and it has evoked little, or none, of the outrage it did three decades beforehand.

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By 1997 when several broadcasting organisations produced a ranking of words by severity ‘fuck’ only came third. 5 The changing values of a new generation are further backed up by research completed by the BBC which discovered that of a list of words that 50% plus said should never be broadcast ‘fuck’ was not even on the list. 6 This change in socially acceptable values by new generations can therefore be shown to influence what is acceptable in terms of language and how language has to change to reflect the changing views of each new generation.

Changing standards and expectations within society can also be seen to have had a result on the English language. Religion to society members in previous centuries was important as it encapsulated the moral values that society’s members were expected to attain to and follow. The turn away from religious values during the twentieth century can be seen as a having an effect upon language as society was no longer governed by the morals it had previously been restricted to and this in turn led to language being changed.

Language change due to the transformation of society’s standards and expectations can also be seen concerning the altering position of women in society that has become more noticeable during the later half of the last century. Women have been consider the subservient sex for many centuries and with the rise of the status of the female in a more recent time frame language has had to change to reflect this. Language has had to alter its male domination to reflect females role in society with such changes as ‘police man’ being changed to ‘police officer’ to be fair and not discriminate against female police officers.

These formally generic terms of language have been broadened to reflect how the cultural importance of women has become more important and how language is attempting to attain equality by the reduction of male specific terms. Language can also be seen to change as a result of the issue of political correctness that has entered into society during the further emancipation of females and other less dominant groups in society. Political correctness can be seen in effect with regards to the changing aspects of language as it is enforced by the dominant forces in society to become a standard for all future changes that will occur within language.

As language of the present and future is changing the influence of political correctness in terms of spoken and written forms of language can be considered to be important as it will be less likely for male specific terms to be created and introduced as none specific ones. The evolving nature of language can be interpreted as reflecting what is socially and culturally acceptable at any given time in a society. What is acceptable by a society is constantly being changed and revised. However, with reference to certain topics language can be seen to change more dramatically as they are considered acceptable or not.

The issue of social acceptability is intrinsically linked to the changing of norms, which occurs with new generations. What is made unacceptable to society can, however be seen more noticeably throughout the history of language with regard to taboo subjects and the euphemisms which exist to mask the undesirable subjects. Taboo subjects change with the generations, but there are existences today which have been present for centuries and are unlikely to change at any time in the near future.

During the previous centuries there has been a shifting of taboo subjects with certain areas being included, which never have been before, while others remained in existence as they have throughout the history of language. During the nineteenth century religious swearing was considered to be taboo, however by the mid twentieth century this was seen as being more acceptable in society while sexual swearing replaced it as the main taboo subject area. Sexual swearing within society today is more acceptable and now it is politically incorrect language that is considered taboo.

7 This nature of taboo subjects does however have some which have existed for centuries and are still prevalent within society today; for example, the number of euphemisms which are in existence to describe subjects such as death. As with any society that exists in the world there is a constant change of societal and cultural values which change language, especially in relation to word usage and meaning. The changes that occur within language related to words can be seen to be brought about for a variety of reasons, however it is usually because of the changing values, which are held up by that society.

Words, which began with one meaning, can be shown to have changed and altered that meaning throughout history as values have changed; this is notable with reference to many derogatory terms for females, which are now considered unacceptable due to the societal change. While word change and usage can be seen as a result of changing values, it can also be seen to be as a result of the new replacing the old. The meanings of words and their use in everyday life can be shown to reflect how new generations in society have changed words to make them more applicable to their own values and lives.

As new meanings for words have been introduced older meanings have been forgotten, adapted or removed completely. The change of meanings of words to reflect how new generations see life can be seen with reference to words such as ‘cool’, a word of Anglo Saxon origin that means ‘between cold and warm. ‘8 In today’s society, however this word has gained other connotations, such as it meaning ‘admirable and excellent’8 and phrases such as ‘keep your cool’8 and ‘cool it’8 in reference to having self-control and calming down.

This change in word meaning and usage has occurred over a relatively short time but has become colloquial in society with almost all its population recognising these forms of the word. ‘The language system is always in the process of change’9 and this holds true for the English language as with any other one. Words in English and the language as a whole are continually being altered and changed to reflect the developing nature of societal and cultural values, which are present at any given time within that society. Societal and cultural values influence the evolution of language and its meaning and influence upon society and its members.

English has been developed over centuries into the form it now exists in and although their have been some major influences which have effected its change more rapidly than others it has constantly been changing in much more minor ways continually throughout its history. The effects of the change to the English language can be seen as being both positive and negative as some words attain new meanings which can have negative connotations, while other new words show the progression of society and the advancement of human nature.

The changing nature of language, word usage and meaning can emphatically be shown by the fact that since William Caxton invented printing in 1476 and dictionaries lead to a standardised form of English their have been many revised editions which continually update and modernise what can always be considered an “out of date” language. Appendix One The Saphir-Whorf Hypothesis was developed from the works of Edward Sapir and Benjamin Whorf.

The hypothesis is based on the principle that language and a culture are intrinsically linked and that language actually created from society’s culture and follows the conventions and structure of that society. Sapir and Whorf have both suggested that how people perceive reality is directly linked to the language that they speak and recognise and therefore that this language that they recognise helps to create their thoughts. Sapir and Whorf both agreed on the idea that culture, language and peoples thoughts are all linked together and that they all affect and help to create the other.

Appendix Two The core of the English language is Anglo-Saxon and this can be seen by the name of places over the country. Some examples of these are names ending in borough, ton, bury, bridge, grove, ham or ing, or those beginning with Brig, Bourne, Mer, Mar, Stan, Stoke or Stow. Appendix Three The Normandy invasion in 1066 introduced over 50 000 new words into the English language, such as government, parliament, city and palace. Appendix Four ‘The Great Vowel Shift’ occurred in the fifteenth century and had a change on language which is still applicable today.

This shift in vowel affected the long (tense) vowels found in words and this affected the punctuation of words in English greatly. What the language was like before the shift can be seen in works of literature and poetry from the likes of Chaucer.

1 Wilhelm von Humboldt (1836) quoted in Aitchinson, J. ‘Language Change: Process or Decay? ‘ (Third Edition), Cambridge University Press. 2 Quoted on website E Museum by Minnesota State University Http://emuseum. mnsu. edu/cultural/lang/whorf. html 3 Quoted on website YourDictionary. com Inc, Http:// html. 4 Page 14. Romaine, S. Language In Society. An Introduction to Sociolinguistics (Second Edition)

Oxford University Press 5 Quoted by Margolis, J. ‘Expletive Deleted’ Guardian, G2 (21/11/02) 6 Research by BBC Chief advisor Andrea Willis, quoted by Margolis, J. ‘Expletive Deleted’ Guardian, G2 (21/11/02) 7 Quoted by Margolis, J. ‘Expletive Deleted’ Guardian,G2 (21/11/02) 8 Chambers Word Online, Http://www. chambersharrap. co. uk/chambers/wordgames/? query=cool 9 Page 194. Downes, W. Language and Society Fontana, London.

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Changes in word usage and meaning in the English language. (2020, Jun 01). Retrieved from

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