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Lexical change in the English language

Do you use ‘wireless’ to mean ‘radio’ or ‘a form of internet connection without cables’? Discover how words change their meanings across generations.

If you overheard the following statement you might be able to make a pretty accurate estimate of the speaker’s age:

we couldn’t listen to the latest tunes because we hadn't wireless

From the word wireless, we would probably assume this statement was made by an older person, as radio is now the more common term. Lexical change refers to a change in the meaning or use of a word, or a generational shift in preference for one word or phrase over another. Lexical change is probably the most frequent type of language change and certainly the easiest to observe. For instance, we can make confident assertions about the age of a speaker who uses the word courting to mean 'going out with', or one who uses the adjective fit to describe someone they find attractive.

New vocabulary or changes in fashionable usage spread rapidly and evenly across the country due to our sophisticated communication links. Intriguingly, in the case of wireless, the word has experienced something of a revival. If you hear the word wireless used by a younger speaker, they are almost certainly using it as an adjective rather than a noun and referring to wireless technology, from broadband to routers and smartphones.

This illustrates perfectly how words can virtually disappear or gradually shift in meaning and usage.

Listen to these extracts of older speakers using vocabulary we might now consider a little outdated.

Wireless

you heard it on the wireless at the time, but you couldn’t never see it like you do on the television now

OED entry

wireless: short for wireless set (British usage); largely superseded by radio except in historical contexts. First cited 1927.

radio: set for receiving organised wireless broadcasting in sound (originally US usage). First cited 1913.

wireless Internet: connection to the Internet that does not depend on wires to carry the signals. First cited 1994; see also Wi-Fi: facility allowing computers, smartphones, or other devices to connect to the Internet or communicate with one another wirelessly within a particular area. First cited 1999.

Pictures

the, the entertainment there, of course, was the pictures or, uhm, a dance, which, the main dance was at The Pavilion

OED entry

pictures:
the showing of a film in a cinema; always with the and in plural (British usage). First cited 1915.

cinema:
short for cinema hall; a building in which films are shown. First cited 1914.

movies:
the screening of motion pictures in a cinema; always with the and in plural (originally North American usage). First cited 1914.

Parlour

and my mother and father slept down in a parlour downstairs

OED entry

parlour:
main family living room or room reserved for entertaining guests; sitting room; ‘best’ room. First cited 1448.

drawing room:
room reserved for the reception of company and to which ladies withdraw from the dining room after dinner. First cited 1642.

sitting room:
room used for sitting in. First cited 1771.

living room:
room set aside for ordinary social use. First cited 1825.

lounge:
the drawing room of a private house. First cited 1881.

front room:
a room situated at the front of a house, esp. a sitting-room kept as the ‘best’ room in the house. First cited 1922.

Listen to the recordings featured on this site in Stannington and Nottingham for other examples of archaic domestic terminology.

Courting

that was nineteen, the end of nineteen-sixty-nine, and, uh, we got married in seventy-one, so we were only really courting about, seriously I suppose twelve months, really

OED entry

court: to pay amorous attention to, to seek to gain the affections of, to woo (with a view to marriage); now only homely or poetic use. First cited 1580.

go out with: no entry in OED.

date: to make or have an arrangement to meet someone; specifically to do so in the context of romantic attachment (originally colloquial US usage). First cited 1902.

  • Jonnie Robinson
  • Jonnie Robinson is Lead Curator for Spoken English at the British Library. He has worked on two nationwide surveys of regional speech, the Survey of English Dialects and BBC Voices, and is on the editorial team for the journal English Today. In 2010/11 he co-curated the British Library exhibition Evolving English: One Language, Many Voices. His latest publication Evolving English WordBank: a glossary of present-day English dialect and slang (2015) draws on sound recordings made by visitors to the exhibition.

The text in this article is available under the Creative Commons License.