The word contemporary is an adjective that defines something as belonging to the same time, age, or period as another. Several objects or beings that live, exits, or occur together in time are contemporary. The term was first used in the early 17th century, replacing time-fellow. A variant of the word, co-temporary, was more commonly used as a substitute until the end of the 18th century when contemporary came back into use. While both words have the English word temporary in it, contemporary has no affinity with said word. Co-temporary, while used as a variant, actually means ‘unitedly, conjointly, or equally temporary’ and the usage of the word back then was wrong.
Contemporary is also used to describe things that are up-to-date with the current time period. The design of furniture, buildings, decorations, and art can be contemporary if it has characteristics of the current time period. The word contemporary is not limited to a description of one time period as time is considered to constantly move forward. It is impossible to have a Contemporary era like the Renaissance era or the Baroque era because it would imply that humans have achieved the pinnacle of their existence. If such an era were to exist then the advancement of society and all human inventions would cease. Although there is a contemporary period in music, the usage of the word is wrong. One can expect that music will continue to change throughout time, therefore the current contemporary music will eventually become outdated. In a sense, that also means that people are always living in a contemporary era. It would just be inappropriate to name that time period the Contemporary era.
Because contemporary can mean either of the same period or of the current period, it should be used carefully in ambiguous situations. To clarify, when contemporary is used in reference to something in the past, the context can give rise to several different meanings. In music, playing Mozart in contemporary style can mean either how Mozart played it in his era, or how it is interpreted in the present era. In order to prevent confusion, one should specify which style is to be used instead of just saying contemporary.
The root of the word contemporary comes from the Latin word contemporārius. The root word is a compound of the Latin words com, meaning together, and temporārius, meaning of or belonging to time. Tempus, meaning time, is the root of temporārius. Tempus comes from the Proto-Indo-European root, temp, meaning to stretch. Other words that come from the same roots are contemporaneous, coeval, synchronous, simultaneous, and coincident, all meaning existing or occurring at the same time. On the other hand, contemporary is associated with humans in general and contemporaneous is associated with events and facts.
1. “Contemporary,” Online Etymology Dictionary, accessed November 20, 2012 http://www.etymonline.com/index.php?term=contemporary
2. “Contemporary,” Oxford English Dictionary, accessed November 20, 2012 http://www.oed.com.proxy.lib.uwaterloo.ca/view/Entry/40115?redirectedFrom=contemporary#eid
3. “Tempus,” Wiktionary, accessed November 20, 2012