How Long Have We Been Modern?

“…And her workin’ in a saloon like any hussy.”

“Oh, that’s not fair, Ma. We’re living in modern times. – … Don’t forget, things have changed since you were a girl. This is 1870.“

— In Old Chicago (1937)

Speaking of clichés, how about that obligatory line in costume dramas, “But, Ma, these are modern times – [fill in the comically ancient year]”? How long have we been patting ourselves on the back for being enlightened enough to live in modern times? Since the dawn of history, I’m guessing. After all, there were always  prehistoric times to look  down on.

The use of the word “modern” in English dates to at least 1456. The quotation cited by the Oxford English Dictionary, from Book Law of Armys [sic] by Sir Gilbert Hay, looks anything but modern to us: “Bot be the opynioun of the doctouris oure maisteris modernis‥he suld say he traistis fermly jt be sa.”

“Modern” came into English from Middle French moderne  (from Late Latin modernus). Modernus is from modo ‘just now’ (adverbial form of modus ‘mode’ n.) + -ernus.

Now, here’s a shortened version of what the OED says about the origin of “mode”:

In branch I. < classical Latin modus measure, size, limit of quantity, manner, method, musical ‘mode’  In branch II. < French mode, feminine (c1393 in Middle French denoting a collective manner of living or thinking proper to a country or age, 1452 in sense ‘way, manner’ …1480 in sense ‘way of dressing.’

Trust the French, even in 1480, to be absolutely à la mode: modern and up-to-date, especially when it comes to fashion.

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Lexie Kahn: Word Snooper is a blog about words and their origins at WordSnooper.com.
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3 Responses to How Long Have We Been Modern?

  1. Gene says:

    In “Billy the Kid vs Dracula” 1966 cult classic, Billy dismisses the idea that there is a vampire at work with ” you can’t expect me to believe those old tales; this is the nineteenth century.”

  2. lexiekahn says:

    Thanks, Gene. I couldn’t find a quote like that with a search engine. It takes someone like you with arcane knowledge.

  3. Pingback: 10 Words and Phrases You Won’t Believe Are 100 Years Old | linguisticus

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