Are you the same person you were 10 years ago? What about 15? What about 250? We know the answer: Nothing stays the same for centuries, including language. Language change typically starts small, but over time it leads to dramatic and often unexpected meaning shifts. This is only natural, because language is at the service of our communication needs. Just as our communities, cultures, laws, and rights change and evolve, our language adapts to the shifting realities of our time.
For example, the word "hysteria" was created at the start of the 19th century to describe a supposed disease that afflicted women and made them upset and emotional. The word comes from the Greek word for uterus (like the word "hysterectomy"), but this anatomical word led to the word for the disease attributed to people with the organ, which in turn began to be associated with the extreme emotion and not actually that old 19th-century disease. Today, many people use "hysteria" or the adjective "hysterical" in English for “extreme emotion” (maybe you sob hysterically, or laugh hysterically), and likely don’t realize the word has misogynistic roots.
The recent U.S. Supreme Court decision overturning the landmark Roe v. Wade precedent, as with most Court decisions, centered on interpreting a document created over 230 years ago, by very different people and in a very different social and historical context than where we find ourselves today. Language is closely linked to these judicial decisions, and there's a lot we can learn about society from language change.
Here are some other ways English has changed since the late 18th century:
Many new words have been created
New words are created all the time, often to fill a gap: There is a new situation, context, advancement, or evolution in how we think and care for each other, and a new word allows us to make quick reference to our new reality. Often, the new word addresses something that our ancestors couldn't have imagined generations or centuries ago. Here are a few words that are pretty “young” when it comes to the English language:
- Congresswoman. While "congressman" was created in the U.S. around 1780, "congresswoman" only emerged about a hundred years ago with the first woman congressperson—around the same time the right of (white) women to vote was finally being enshrined in the Constitution.
- Donate. This verb was created from the noun "donation," which has been in English for centuries. The new verb "donate" is first recorded in writing in the early 19th century.
- Ectopic. This word for a kind of non-viable pregnancy that will kill the woman if not treated was created in the mid-1800s. New words are often created as we learn more about the world and need ways to talk about what was previously unknown. If a community or group doesn't have access to information, like about medical realities, it's not surprising they wouldn't be able to conceive of or use language about those ideas!
- Epidural. It was only about 100 years ago that scientific advances in pain relief medication led to epidural injections being used to relieve childbirth pain, and the word "epidural" started being used as a noun for this injection in the mid-20th century.
- Interracial. This word didn't emerge until the late 19th century, because for much of U.S. history interactions between people of different races were forbidden or regulated, when not explicitly by law, often by social codes of conduct.
Words evolved to have new meanings
It's also really common for existing words to adopt new meanings. Sometimes this can happen really fast, but often a word has a couple possible meanings or interpretations, and one of those becomes more prominent, leading to another and another. Like a game of telephone that lasts centuries, changes in meaning can be really surprising—but just as our culture and sensibilities evolve, so do word meanings!
- Access. This word has been a noun in English for centuries, since Middle English, and it started to be used as a verb just 60 or 70 years ago! Today you can say "I would like to access reproductive healthcare," but you used to have to say "have access to" something.
- Equal. While the meaning of equal hasn't changed much from "same, identical," it wasn't until the mid-1800s that it was first applied to men and women in the U.S.
- Filibuster. As a noun, "filibuster" in the sense of blocking debate and legislative process only originated during the U.S. Civil War. Before that, it and related words (like "filibustering") referred specifically to pirates, piracy, lawlessness, and upending order.
- Pregnant. "Pregnant" meant "with child" from the time it entered English around 600 years ago—but it wasn't always an accepted, polite word to be used in all situations. It was considered taboo and too graphic! It wasn't until the 1960s that it became more acceptable. The chart below, from the Google Ngram Viewer, shows the usage of "pregnant" in print between the years 1800 and 2019.
- Protest. This word existed as a noun in English for many hundreds of years, and it originally meant a statement or assertion, like something you would swear to. It took a long time for it to evolve into a verb, as in, "Previous generations protested and fought for these rights." It became an adjective to describe marches and rallies during the U.S. civil rights movement, and the modern sense as a verb for what you do at these marches and rallies ("We're protesting the recent decision") is from around the mid-20th century.
We won't stop moving forward
Language change and language innovation is inevitable, and that's a good thing! Even when political organizations and groups make decisions telling people how to use language or what is "acceptable" to do or say, these mandates might slow progress or spark debates, but language serves its users—not the other way around. And remember, every word in your vocabulary tells a story, so be intentional about the words you choose, no matter the language.