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The evolution of the English language from Shakespeare to today

Changing Language and shifts of meaning across the centuries: From Shakespeare to Today

by Racheal Smith

You are probably happy to believe that English has changed a lot over time – after all – you see how you speak differently to the way your parents speak.  There are likely commonly known changes that you feel more confident with, such as we do not say hath and thou anymore.  You might also feel unsurprised that in the time of Shakespeare there was no such word as email and text was a noun and not a verb.  But, did you know it is unlikely that there would ever have been a shared English had Caxton not invented the printer?  Before this time there were a host of different dialects and someone thirty miles away would have been difficult to understand.

Language use changes because of technology, invasion by foreign armies, immigration, and the influence of culture.  Language is highly dynamic. All it takes for a new word to be formed is for one person to say it and another person to repeat it in the same context.  This is how the word “selfie” emerged – first in a forum and then repeated elsewhere online – and now it is universally known as a photograph taken of yourself by yourself.
Shakespeare himself was something of a creator of language.  You would be shocked at how many of our most commonly used phrases were first coined by Shakespeare.  As an example, if you have ever found yourself “in a pickle” you can thank him for helping you describe your predicament.  If your friends tell you a joke and you found yourself “in stitches” or you have ever told a knock, knock joke well, you will be speaking Shakespeare.  If you have waited “with bated breath” or you have “a heart of gold” or have been on “a wild goose chase” – you can thank the big guy for helping you explain what is going on in your world!


the english of Shakespeare

But, if Shakespeare were to walk the streets today would he be able to understand what we were saying? This is not just a matter of the continual introduction of new words from abroad or from technology.  Would he understand us even if we used words that were common in his time? In truth - not as well as we would hope.  Not only do words appear and disappear but words change in meaning.  It is likely that old Will would have a hard time with modern day English.

The English of Shakespeare: shifts of meaning

To be fair to Shakespeare, there are words that have changed in a single generation.  Let’s face it – gay used to mean happy, bad for a while meant good and sick does not always mean ill.  Sometimes our dads have a hard time with the changes and embarrass you in front of your friends.  However, there are some more surprising changes that would upset the odd Elizabethan playwright.
First, if you told Will he was a “nice man” he is likely to be offended.  Nice once meant silly, foolish and simple.  Even today, the implication being called a nice man might not deliver the compliment you hope, as it is bland and without feeling.  Language really is tricky.  But, even trickier, if you said he was brave, as there is every chance you were telling him he was a coward… why? Well, because of the word bravado – or faked courage – which is where brave derives.

Not only did nice and brave become the opposite but so did silly.  Silly once meant blessed.  After a while the meaning of silly progressed to mean the weak and the vulnerable – people who needed your help.  Now, obviously the word means foolish.  The same turnabout happened with awful.  If you look at this word you can see what it was once meant to mean – full of awe.  Hence, in some church services you will hear of the “awful majesty of God”.  A modern interpretation of this would see the power of God to be despicable but instead it is meant to suggest that we should sit full of awe at his power.  This is a good reason to keep the dynamic nature of language in mind – especially when dealing with such sensitive topics as religion.
There are much funnier examples of language meaning change.  Fizzle is an Americanism for failure but is now used as a verb to reference quiet flatulence.  You know, a fizzle would be one of those that came out silently but with quite a deadly impact! 

Shakespeare would also have trouble with women, if he lived today.  A spinster, for instance, used to be someone who spun textiles and had nothing to do with being unmarried.  A hussy, well that meant a housewife or mistress of a household and was quite a respectful term.  Obviously, now, he would be giving her a particularly bad name.  Similarly, if he was to tell a woman she was naughty – he would indeed be meaning to insult her – as he would think he was telling her she was nothing.  However, our young women might feel he was being cheeky at best – suggesting she was being mildly bad in her behaviour.  Saying that, it is probably an improvement on the evil and immoral that it once meant.  Buxom has also had a distressing change for the people of Shakespeare’s time.  It used to mean compliant.  The idea then became that most compliant women – in the sense of bars and prostitutes – tended to be plump, big-breasted women.  Sometimes word evolution is far from politically correct.

The issue of problematic language evolution flips the other way too.  If you flirted with Shakespeare then you would be flicking him away.  Maybe this is not such a big leap – if you consider how we sometimes want to flick some flirts away today!  However, “flirt” meant a way of flicking open a fan in a jerky motion.  How did the change come about? Well, it is supposed that the word was used as a metaphor for the jerking around of a human heart.  Now the move from a fan to, well, a different over-zealous fan makes sense.
Metaphors play a big part in the evolution of language.  If you look at the word fathom, for instance. Fathom used to mean to encircle one’s arms.  It then changed to understanding something after much thought.  This feels like an incomprehensible change.  However, here is the route from one to the other: the measurement of an outstretched arm is called a fathom; you can use this to create a line which tells you how deep the water is in fathoms; by knowing how deep the water is you have got to the bottom of the deep sea; so, fathoming then becomes linked to getting to the bottom of ideas or concepts.  Confused? Imagine how a random Elizabethan would feel!

Changing of words and sounds

Another influence on language change is the evolution of the sound of words.  You might think that an orange got its name because it is orange.  In fact, it grows green on the tree and looks more yellow as juice.  Sometimes food producers add orange colour dye into the drink to make it the colour of its name.  Its original name comes from India and is known as naranj.  When the fruit made its way to Spain it became known as naranja.  As English words generally do not end it J the spelling was change to narange.  After a period, the “n” was dropped and the “a” morphed into an “o”. So, the fruit was not named after its colour after all.

A similar story of morphing sounds can explain checkmate.  Have you ever wondered why you say this when you have won a game of chess?  The word originated from Farsi.  It was Sha-k-mate, which literally translates as “the king is dead.”  This makes a lot more sense when you considered the point of chess is to kill the king and therefore take over the kingdom.  The “Sh” morphed into a “Ch” when it became a popular game in France. 
The changes of meaning through time are called semantic shifts.  There have been many through time and can alter the way that we understand history.  Prestigious used to relate to magic and deception – and not the fame and popularity of today.  Fun used to mean cheat or hoax rather than being amused as it is today.  It derives from the middle English fonnen, which means to befool.  Decimate, which means destroy everything in today’s language, literally used to mean kill one-in-ten.  This is how the Roman army dealt with mutinous soldiers. 

Language changes are an interesting topic to study and can provide a lot of entertainment.  However, more importantly, understanding that language evolves is an important consideration in inter-generational conversation and our perspective on historical texts.  It is easy to see how we could interpret historical texts using our modern meaning making rather than the meaning applied at the time.  Language is layered with implication and therefore care with words and their meanings is an important means of preserving our understanding of the world and its cultures.