Language is not controlled by dictionaries and grammarians, though students of language are often made to feel that way. Instead, dictionaries and grammarians track the logic that holds a language together and the many meanings that words accrue as they pass through time. In other words, the speakers of a language create the language. The study of the origins of words, known as etymology, attempts to follow how words come into being and how the friction of historical events shapes their meaning.
For instance, Old English, the oldest ancestor to our Modern English, came into being when Germanic tribes migrated to Britain in around 5 A.D. The clashing of cultures created a need for unique language. Another clash, the Norman conquest in 1066, drastically shaped the language to such a great extent that it ushered in the next era of English, Middle English. With the Norman invasion, Latin and French influences entered the spoken and written language. The Renaissance fascination with ancient languages, like Greek and Latin, marked the beginning of the shift to Modern English.
The words we use are still changing, of course, with hundreds being added to the dictionary each year and sanctioned as accepted English. In 2019, Miriam Webster added “screen time” and “unplug,” among 638 others. As these words show, the changing language reflects the dramatically shifting cultural landscape. Take this quiz and test your knowledge of the shifting sands that formed these words!