Words come and go and meanings change over time. Exploring the history behind unknown words in primary source texts illustrates changes technology, daily life, and social behavior over time. Learning the origins of a word is something usually associated with vocabulary lessons or English classes. Etymology also has an important place in the study of history and social studies classrooms. Tracing the origins of words is especially important when reading primary source texts. Students may think they know the meaning of a word; when in fact they only know the modern definition. Or, they encounter words that have fallen out of usage.
Archaic words such as cordwainer, goodwife, husbandman, blackguard and cutpurse make appearances in primary source texts from the Middle Ages to the late 19th and early 20th century. But if students don’t know a cordwainer was shoemaker, a goody or goodwife was a polite term to address a woman of lower social status, a husbandman was a farmer, blackguard a servant or criminal, and cutpurse a pickpocket – students become frustrated and the primary source texts become meaningless.
Words also change meanings over time. Students may think something very different is going on when they read about intercourse between a man and woman in an 18th century text. Then, the word intercourse meant social communication was taking place; the sexual connotation of the word was not widely used until the 20th century.
Ask students to brainstorm lists of new words or new slang. Discuss how changes in culture, demography, social context, or technology inspired the creation of the new word.
(By the way, the word brainstorm described a fit of rage or melancholy until early 19th century when its meaning began to shift to what we know today - a group of people discussing ideas.)
For example, ransomware became a word in the 1980s with the development of malicious computer software. Assembly-line originated in the early 20th century United States to describe a group of machines and workers in factories, manufacturing products. New technology calls for new words.
Co-parenting, to share parental duties of raising a child with another person, has become a common word in recent decades as demographic and cultural shifts attach less social stigma to divorced, single, or same-sex parents. Two-parent households are on the decline in the United States as divorce, remarriage and cohabitation are on the rise. New words reflect these changes.
Jeggings, mansplain, and bromance are recent words added to the dictionary that illustrate changes in daily life – fashion and relationships. Ask students to propose additional new words that should be added. Or direct students to create definitions for modern technology vocabulary such as as keyword, hacking, or data mining that would make sense to a person living in the Middle Ages or the ancient world.
Several free, online dictionaries of etymology are available. But the best resource is the Oxford English Dictionary. Its creation began in 1857 and the initial volumes were published from 1884 to 1928. The Oxford English Dictionary is a historical dictionary containing all the core words and meanings in English over more than 1,000 years, from Old English to the present day, including many obsolete and historical terms.1 Because languages change over time, new words are periodically added, such as hangry, as well as new meanings to existing words such as snowflake and swag.2 Many library databases provide free digital access to the Oxford English Dictionary.
According to the Oxford English Dictionary, etymology is the process of investigating the origin and historical development of a word. The word etymology began to be used in English in the 15th century; but the practice dates back to ancient times. Historians are often etymologists, examining how the meaning of a word changes in written documents over time to assess change, continuity, and context. For example, in his book Chivalry medieval historian Maurice Keen explored the origins and evolution of the word chivalry. In the early Middle Ages, chivalry described fully armed fighting men on horseback. Over centuries, the word evolved to define a gallant, idealized, and often religious code of behavior for knights and gentlemen.
Words express ideas and perspectives. Through the study of the history of key words in a primary source text, students analyze how historical contexts shape perspectives and how historians interpret the past. These are the skills stressed in the College, Career, and Civic Life (C3) Framework for Social Studies State Standards.
For more about the history of words in the social studies classroom: