The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume XIV. The Victorian Age, Part Two.

XV. Changes in the Language since Shakespeare’s Time

§ 5. Vocabulary

During the last three centuries, the vocabulary of English has displayed the characteristic marks of a living tongue—words have become obsolete, words have altered in meaning, words have been created. In addition, many words have been borrowed, and the borrowing has been world-wide.

It is sometimes hard to determine if a word is really obsolete, for it may linger in obscurity and then suddenly emerge. To thieve, found in Old English, then for long unrecorded, reappears in the seventeenth century. Through their occurrence in the Prayer Book, in the Bible, and in Shakespeare’s plays, many expressions, though disused in ordinary speech and writing, have remained in knowledge and can hardly be termed obsolete. Again, the romantic revival restored old words to literature, some of which have returned into general use. To this class belong words like dight, nearly lost in the eighteenth century but revived in the nineteenth; elfish; hue, archaic about 1600, afterwards reintroduced as a poetic synonym for colour; to jeopard; to smoulder; soothfast, brought back by Sir Walter Scott.

Some words naturally fell out of use with the objects they denoted, as crowd (fiddle), spontoon (half-pike). But, in many cases, the exact reason for disuse is obscure. It may be to avoid ambiguity or to obtain greater vividness, the feeling that a word is played out or merely the longing for novelty. The following are examples of words obsolete in the standard language since Shakespeare’s time: accite, bisson, brickle, cypress (gauze), end (gather in harvest), gent (graceful), grin (a snare), hent, makesport, neeze, nesh, pink (small), rear (half-cooked), terrestrious, uneath. Other words may be regarded as archaic, employed to impart an antique flavour to speech or writing, as an (if), anon, astonied, bewray, certes, coil (uproar), ear (to plough), eld, feat (adroit), fere, glister, gobbet, lazar, leasing (falsehood), leman, murrey, nim, peradventure, sennight, sooth, targe, thole, thrall, throughly, vails (perquisites), yare.

When we meet an obsolete word, its strangeness puts us on our guard: not so a word which, while still in common use, has undergone a change of meaning. Its familiar appearance lulls the mind into accepting it at its most familiar value, while, in reality, its meaning is quite different. Shakespeare’s “Security is mortals chiefest enemy,” the Biblical injunction to the receivers of the talents “Occupy till I come,” the petition in the Prayer Book “that they may truly and indifferently minister justice,” must frequently be misunderstood. Some thinking is required to discover the precise meaning of Swift’s “whole pack of dismals coming to you with their black equipage,” while Goldsmith’s “loud laugh that spoke the vacant mind” is often so quoted as to betray misapprehension of what he meant by vacant.

In some of the numerous words which have altered in meaning during the last three centuries the change is slight, in others it is very great, in all the result is a real addition to the capacity of the language. When a name is required for a new mechanical invention, for a new idea, for a disturbance in the body politic, instead of coining a word, we may employ an old word with a new sense. The application of mule in spinning, of train in railways, of negative in photography, exemplifies how inventions divert words into new channels. Sometimes, as in the case of train, the new channel comes to be one of the most important. Nineteenth-century politics gave new meanings to conservative, unionist, liberal, radical, as seventeenth-century troubles did to puritan, roundhead, cavalier, covenanter. The new use may originate in the desire for a fresh and vivid designation, which at first may be dubbed slang, as guinea-pig (a paid director), go baldheaded (to stake all and disregard consequences), blackbird (negro), garret (head). The fact that presently now means “by and by” testifies to the universality of procrastination. Conceited no longer signifies full of imagination, full of judgment, but suggests thinking too highly of oneself, since one’s estimate of oneself inclines to be too high. Censure acquired its notion of fault-finding because we are apt to be harsh in judging others. Words may change for the better, or for the worse; may be widened in sense or narrowed. Politician, nowadays, does not necessarily connote scheming, nor does emulation, as formerly, convey the bad meaning of envy, malicious rivalry. Clever, in the eighteenth century, was, according to Dr. Johnson, “a low word scarcely ever used but in burlesque or conversation; and applied to anything a man likes, without any settled meaning.” On the other hand, officious has dropped its former good sense of obliging; disgust has taken the notion of loathing; and blooming, because employed as a euphemism, now bears the sinister meaning it was intended to gloss over. Romantic writers elevated the meaning of bard and minstrel, narrowing, also, the latter, which is no longer applied to buffoons and jugglers. Science has been severely restricted in its most common use, while, except in dialect or as an archaism, meat has ceased to mean food in general. Figurative usage is frequently the starting point of a permanent change in sense. Copper may designate something made of the material, as a coin or a vessel; and then, when another material is substituted, the previous name may remain. We now apply copper to coins of bronze and vessels of iron, just as we call one article a shoehorn though made of silver, and another a fire-iron though made of brass. Association of ideas plays a great part in transferring names. An example of this is the application of bluestocking to Barebone’s parliament in the seventeenth century, and to a group of learned ladies in the eighteenth. An invention, a production, a practice, may take its name from the originator, from the place of origin, or from some place or person connected with it. This, in recent times, has added an extremely varied number of words to English; as to boycott, to burke, to shanghai, pinchbeck, mackintosh, gamp, glengarry, chesterfield, jersey, cardigan, joseph, ulster, wellingtons, snider, shrapnel, gatling, negus, sandwich, glenlivet, cheddar, gage (in greengage), mocha, strathspey, hansom, brougham, limerick, guy, mohock. Others of this type belong, in part, to the section on derivation, since they have been prepared for use by the addition of formal endings; as boswellise, bowdlerise, grangerise, macadamise, daltonism, grundyism, malapropism, spoonerism, pickwickian, fabian, procrustean, peeler. When we employ burke to mean stifle a rumour or an enquiry, we really make one word do the work of several, i.e. “to stifle a rumour as Burke stifled his victims.” One recent example of this shortening is wireless, to indicate Marconi’s system of telegraphy. At the end of the eighteenth century, telegraphy was applied to transmitting messages by moving arms attached to posts. When electricity was employed, the term was electric telegraphy; but, as this method predominated, it monopolised the word telegraphy, and electric was dropped. Marconi’s system received the name wireless telegraphy, and then the adjective alone came to designate the whole.