Sunday, October 16, 2005
Words out of time and place
As a writer of historical novels, I notice how certain words cease to have cultural meaning over time. The obvious examples are words we don't even recognize anymore, like all that slang from the Regency period. Those are not the ones that fascinate me, however. Instead I am captivated by words that are still in general usage, but that are falling out of favor or even losing their meaning as our culture changes.
An example is the word "honor." It means more than honesty. It speaks volumes about a person to say he or she is honorable. The meaning appears to have less and less connection to the way our society operates now, though. The values associated with the word "honor" are not the ones celebrated today and the use of the word in present day speech sounds antiquated.
"Dignity" is another word that I use in my books but that seems to have little use or application today. Is this even a compliment anymore? Is being dignified a good thing, or does the word now conjure up images of some old, stodgy, tweedy person.
"Noble" is yet another word on its way to losing any meaning in modern usage. I mean noble as an adjective, not a noun. Several years ago my sister used the word to describe a young man to me, and I thought how odd it was for her to choose that word since I never hear or read it anymore. It was the right word, however, which was even more unusual.
Have you noticed other words going through this transition? Words that don't sound anachronistic yet, but that refer to qualities and values that were once admired but are not in step with our culture today?