ENGL 328: Modern

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Oxford English Dictionary Online

The Oxford English Dictionary Online has an extensive list of definitions for modern. Its most frequent meaning in 18th Century British Literature is as an adjective per definition 2.a. in the OED listing: "Of or relating to the present and recent times, as opposed to the remote past; of, relating to, or originating in the current age or period." This meaning is different from the more contemporary understanding of the word; see modernism and modernist.

Another frequent use of the word is the OED's first definition: "Being in existence at this time; current, present."

Samuel Johnson'sUnderstanding of Modern

When modern is used in a comparative sense, the author may be making a judgment, i.e., whether the modern example is better than or somehow preferred to the other, or is less desirable or less acceptable in some sense than the other. For example, in The Plays of William Shakespeare, Johnson's uses of the word modern frequently seem to bear out the implication of his first reference: "The great contention of criticism is to find the faults of the moderns, and the beauties of the ancients." (p. 419) On page 421, he goes on: "Shakespeare is above all writers, at least above all modern writers." On page 422: "... to deliver them as nothing human ever was delivered is the business of a modern dramatist." On page 425: "Iago bellows at Brabantio's window, without injury to the scheme of the play, though in terms which a modern audience would not easily endure." Johnson is not shy in these passages to show his distaste of then-current standards as compared with Shakespeare's time and work. Here, Johnson explicitly contrasts modern with the old (the ancient) in an unfavorable light.


This idea of judgment is also found in the introduction to Johnson's dictionary. He writes, in regard to the variable orthography of words, "I have attempted few alterations, and among those few, perhaps, the greater part is from the modern to the ancient practice." Johnson is lamenting the sad state of the English language, and wishes to create a uniform spelling system that reflects the "ancient" orthography of words rather than their many "modern" dialectical variations. In this context, modern represents disorder, while ancient represents knowledge and order.

One mention of the word is at the end of The Rambler, No. 36, on page 193 of Samuel Johnson -- The Major Works: "Our descriptions may indeed differ from those of Virgil, as an English from an Italian summer, and, in some respects, as modern from ancient life." Here the use is relational, as Johnson compares the descriptions of nature in "the pastorals of antiquity" with those of contemporary (in his day) pastoral poetry. In The Rambler, No. 37, on page 194, are two additional references: "in the writings of the modern critics" and "according to the customs of modern life." Again, Johnson uses the word comparatively and in the same sense as described above.

It is noteworthy that two of these three examples pair modern with the word life. Johnson was referring to "modern life" 200 or 250 years ago, so the specific meaning of the phrase in 2008 would be vastly different. In one sense, the mere passage of time profoundly alters the meaning of the word modern by the change in context. For example, a modern piece of furniture in Johnson's day would be an antique in ours. By the same token, usage in the sense of "current" is what present-day users of the word often intend, demonstrating that this thread of meaning persists.

In The Idler, No. 66, Johnson writes, "Of tragedy he concluded business to be the soul, and yet often hinted that love predominates too much upon the modern stage." (pg. 292) The term modern is used here to mean recent, but also seems to be used comparatively, as in contrast to the past. There also is a sense of judgment implied here, as if the too-heavy emphasis on love in theatrical productions of the time made them less worthy than earlier dramas that focused less on love.

In the preface to A Dictionary of the English Language, Johnson defends his tendency to use many quotations to illustrate the different shades of meaning of a word. In describing these quoted sources, he says, “one will prove the expression genuine from an ancient author; another will show it elegant from a modern…” Here the word modern can function either as a noun, signifying a person living at the time, or as a adjective, describing a contemporary author, the unstated noun in this parallel sentence construction.

from Johnson's Dictionary

There are many mentions of the word modern in Johnson's dictionary. This link from ECCO has all the pages of the second volume of his dictionary that feature modern Johnson's actual definition for modern is : "1) late; recent; not ancient; not antique," and "2) In Shakespeare; vulgar; mean; common." Once again, this demonstrates a certain value judgment attached to things deemed modern, as opposed to things ancient or antique.

from Raymond Williams' Keywords Vocabulary

Williams shows that modern was originally a synonym for contemporary "in the sense of something existing now, just now." He notes the relationship between modern used in contrast to ancient was established before the Renaissance and became common in the 16th century. Its later forms of modernism, modernist, modernity, and modernize, referred to alterations that needed justification (i.e. "I have taken the liberty to modernize the language" Fielding, 1752). "Modernism" and "modernist" now are usually thought of in the realm of art and literature.


Williams notes that in the 19th century the word modern had an unfavorable connotation, but by the 20th century, a great shift occurred where modern became "virtually equivalent" to improved, satisfactory, or efficient. A relatively new (2000) education textbook uses modern in this vein when author Nancy Stewart Greene says: "Schooling also reflected the need to teach life skills to help students live within the modern industrial world." The pairing of modern with industrial is relevant here to Williams' 20th-century meaning. Greene also says, "International comparisons of students' scores on tests of academic achievement are sometimes used to evaluate American students' ability to contribute to the modern economy." This use obviously means "current" or "present-day," but within the context, also seems to connote advanced or fast-moving, something with which one must keep pace.

from William Wordsworth

"If my conclusions are admitted, and carried as far as they must be carried if admitted at all, our judgements concerning the works of the greatest Poets both ancient and modern will be far different from what they are at present, both when we praise, and when we censure: and our moral feelings influencing and influenced by these judgements will, I believe, be corrected and purified." Here, Wordsworth is criticizing the current thoughts about style and language within poetry. Once again, "modern" is paired with ancient, although not in the same blatantly negative sense as in Johnson's work.

In the advertisement at the beginning of Lyrical Ballads, the author writes, in reference to the poetry, "Readers accustomed to the gaudiness and inane phraseology of modern writers, if they persist in reading this book, will perhaps frequently have to struggle with feelings of strangeness and awkwardness..." Yet again, modern has negative connotations. However, there is no direct comparison between modern and ancient, showing how the word is beginning to be used more and more synonymously with "contemporary."

Later in the advertisement, the author writes: "The lines entitled Expostulation and Reply, and those which follow, arose out of conversation with a friend who was somewhat unreasonably attached to modern books on moral philosophy." Although modern is not used particularly favorably, here it seems to be used in place of "contemporary." This also marks an important shift, because it is one of the first times that something outside the realm of literature (i.e. philosophy) is described as being modern.

Edmund Burke

In "The Sketch of a Negro Code," Burke states: "It is not that my plan does not lead to the extinction of the slave trade; but it is through a very slow progress, the chief effects of which is to be operated in our own plantations by rendering, in a length of time, all foreign supply unnecessary. It was my wish, whilst the slavery continued, and the consequent commerce, to take such measure as to civilize the coast of Africa by the trade, which now renders in more barbarous, and to lead by degrees to a more reputable, and, possibly, a more profitable, connexion with it than we maintain at present." (184-185) Burke uses the term civilize as modernizing the African people, to make them capable of living on their own and gradually "weaning" them off slavery.

Burke lays out a set of guidelines and rules that he believes will help the African people develop the capability to sustain a productive life. The main steps of this process are to: 1) offer them internal and external protection; 2) establish a church for them; 3) set up schools for them; 4) allow them to get married under the church and the law; and 5) allow them, by proving their "civility" and their ability to meet certain British cultural standards, eventually to gain their freedom.

Through these passages, the word modern is coupled with civilize, civilization, and to be civilized, referring to the progression and development of the African people. This progression is set up through the tension between ancient and modern, as in Samuel Johnson's work. Here, ancient refers to the slaves and their culture, and modern refers to forcing British culture, beliefs, and rituals on the Africans. Modernity, in Burke's eyes, is the progression of implementing such a system. Thus it seems appropriate to link modern with imperialism for its connection to a social activity and economic imposition from one culture to another.

Burke's discussion of force in the beginning of "Speech on Conciliation with the Colonies" seems modern. England is in the middle of many conflicts and Burke says, "I confess, possibly for want of this knowledge, my opinion is much more in favor of prudent management than of force" (259). He also notes that "the use of force alone is but temporary. It may subdue for a moment; but it does not remove the necessity of subduing again" (260). Those who think outside the mainstream of public opinion, as Burke does here, often are considered modern. Burke suggests that "prudent management" is the way to go instead of physical force, a line of thinking that is current in some arenas of life today. For example, many major American corporations (Microsoft, Google, Starbucks) did not physically force their way into prominence, but rather became powerful through "prudent management."

Jane Austen and Sense & Sensibility

Until a few decades ago, most women didn't really have much of a say in relationship decisions. Thus, the conversation between Mr. and Mrs. John Dashwood about whether to give Mr. Dashwood's half-sisters 3,000 pounds is quite modern. Mrs. Dashwood is conniving and her husband goes along with it. For a husband to listen and agree with his wife's suggestions about money seems to be a modern sort of relationship.

Austen uses the word modern in a positive sense in the following quotation: "There is one remarkably pretty sitting room up stairs; of a nice comfortable size for constant use, and with modern furniture it would be delightful" (69). She explicitly states that "modern" is "delightful." She repeats this notion a few sentences later: "I did not see it to advantage, for nothing could be more forlorn than the furniture--but if it were newly fitted up--a couple of hundred pounds, Willoughby says, would make it one of the pleasantest summer-rooms in England" (70), where "newly" could mean "new" versus "used" and also "new" as in fashion or style, thus modern. Here, Austen uses modern to mean contemporary, as in new fashion versus old, and couples it with the word "new".

Austen's uses of modern seem to be very positive, whereas Johnson regarded modernity as a negative trait. Austen viewed modernity to mean progress toward something better, while Johnson considered it a move away from what was best. Austen begins to move toward the current sense of modernity as desirable.

This may reflect the authors' respective positions in society. While Johnson's critique was that the British were moving too far away from the standards established by the ancients, Austen posited that centuries of rule by men had greatly reduced women's ability to be useful and self-sufficient. Austen wanted to move away from the status quo, while Johnson wanted to maintain it.

Current Usage

The Seattle Post-Intelligencer, 1/22/08 (p. E2) quotes British author Anthony Horowitz commenting on his Alex Rider stories featuring a 14-year-old boy as a James Bond-like character: "He's a very modern kid ... so first of all he's not a patriot. British kids, by and large, are not in thrall to government and queen and country." Juxtapose this with the Equiano quote on modern patriotism (p. 237), while keeping in mind the first OED definition of modern (see above) with its political connotation. The OED listing mentions that this first definition was frequently applied "to the current holder or incumbent of an office or position, esp. a reigning monarch," but notes this usage is obsolete. Even though modern's connection to politics and royalty apparently had faded after the 18th Century, the word is used here with some of that very connotation. Horowitz also uses modern to compare something past -- James Bond, the idea of a patriotic spy -- with something present, although it's difficult to tell whether he's implying a judgment (i.e., preference) of current British kids' attitudes or of Ian Fleming's original Bond's beliefs.

Some of the most prevalent images of modern are screenshots from the video game "Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare."


This game promises to "deliver the most intense and cinematic action experience ever," and highlights a common contemporary usage of modern as a synonym for efficient or technologically advanced. Although this harkens back to the OED definition, Johnson probably would not approve. For him, what is modern can never equal the quality of what is ancient, but Call of Duty implies that modern is better than old.

Terry's Pratchett's most recent novel, Making Money, has a use of the word modern. In response to a sarcastic comment by one of the female characters, one of the wizards snidely remarks that she's "that type of lady...Modern. Here, the wizards represent a sort of stuffy, stodgy traditionalism, so it's no surprise they use the word modern in a pejorative sense to describe a woman who acts against their social values. Modern women, according to this wizard, don't know how to act lady-like and rely instead on their wit and intellect, rather than depending on men to help them.

Evolution (and extinction)

Two forms of the word modern have waxed and waned: modish, which appears in 18th Century texts, and mod, which was a product of the 1960s. Webster's Dictionary defines the adjective modish as "in accordance with the prevailing mode; fashionable; stylish." It appears in Johnson's The Vanity of Human Wishes (p. 13, line 61), "How wouldst thou shake at Britain's modish tribe," and in The Plays of William Shakespeare, p. 425, "The polite are always catching modish innovations."

Webster's defines mod as a noun: "(formerly) a British teenager who strives to attain a sophisticated, aloof personality and affect an ultramodern version of Edwardian dress and manners; a person who wears mod clothing;" and as an adjective: "pertaining to a style of dress characterized by bold colors, patterns, and stripes {short for modern}." The fashion model Twiggy, the supermodel of her 1960s era, personified this.


Both these variations seem to have disappeared from use, although the connection of modern to fashion and style persists. And it is this stylistic meaning of the word that, in addition to the comments in Current Usage, seems to dominate today's (2008) usage. Take, for instance, such common word pairings (or word clusters) as modern art, modern dance, and modern decor. Below is an image from a restaurant in Taiwan--adequately named Toilet Bowl--that boasts such "modern decor."


Another evolving use of the word modern is the adjective postmodern, which Webster's defines as: "of or pertaining to any of several trends or movements in the arts or literature rejecting or reacting to modernism, esp. in reference to the architecture of the late 20th century, which is more ornate than standard modern architecture." A 2001 educational text uses this word differently from the common context. "Especially in this postmodern age, when we sense that value judgments about other cultures are extremely tenuous ... " (Simon, p. 73) This use contrasts the present with a past era, invoking the meaning of time, but also compares the current American views about gender relations (i.e., attitudes toward girls vs. boys) with those of China a century ago, possibly also inferring technological advancement (modernization) over an agrarian life (nature), and civilization (gender parity) over native practices (devaluing girls). All these comparisons use postmodern favorably.

Another example of postmodern, also from an education text: "Even in our postmodern rhetoric related to the deconstruction of dominance, Whites often speak of 'giving voice' to marginalized groups, as if their voice is ours to give." In this context, the word seems to mean "advanced" or "forward-thinking" or maybe "sophisticated." It is interesting to consider why the author chose postmodern over modern in this statement.

Postmodern also seems to fix modern in time, with the implication that such time has passed, i.e., modern suddenly becomes passe. This usage also implies a comparison with a past era, similar to the many examples noted earlier of textual juxtapositions of ancient and modern.

Another ancient-modern contrast is in Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, which was originally printed with the subtitle "The Modern Prometheus". Prometheus, according to Greek mythology, created man out of clay, and stole fire from Zeus to give to man. Prometheus was seen as a rebellious figure who defied the gods, and Shelley uses this as a parallel to the character Victor Frankenstein.



Equiano, Olaudah. The Interesting Narrative and Other Writings. New York: Penguin Group, 1995.

Green, Nancy Stewart. "Training for Work and Survival," in Cultures of Curriculum, Eds. Joseph, Bravmann, Windschitl, Mikel and Green. New Jersey: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 2000.

Howard, Gary R. "We Can't Teach What We Don't Know: White Teachers, Multiracial Schools," 2nd ed. New York: Teachers College Press, 2006.

Simon, Katherine G. "We Could Argue About That All Day," Chapter 4, page 73, from "Moral Questions in the Classroom: How to Get Kids to Think Deeply About Real Life and Their Schoolwork." New Haven: Yale University Press, 2001.

Williams, Raymond. Keywords: A Vocabulary of Culture and Society Revised Edition. New York: Oxford University Press, 1976.










toiletrestaurant.jpg www.coolhunting.com/Taiwan-ToiletRestaurant-1.jpg

Pratchett, Terry. Making Money. London : Harper. 2007

Wordsworth, William & Samuel Coleridge. Lyrical Ballads. London : Penguin Group. 1999