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Wednesday, November 21, 2012


Modern (adj.): Pertaining to the present and recent time; not ancient or remote. The origin is Latin- modernus- and the root is modo, meaning ‘just now’. Because Modern is both a common adjective and a historical period, modern can be thought of with as having two meanings: ‘Modern with a big M’ or ‘modern with a little m’.

Modern with a little m is a recent word and came to English from middle French. Despite being absent from Old English, it was readily present in Middle English nearly in its current form. The earliest documentation is a 1456 legal document but the most well-known  early writing using the word “modern” is by Shakespeare.
Ross: Alas, poor country! … Where violent sorrow seems, A moderne ecstasy (Macbeth. I.iii.70)
To Shakespeare, modern meant ‘common-place’. This meaning of modern is still in use as in the term  ‘modern-day’.  But in contemporary media, modern usually suggests ‘cutting-edge’ or ‘avant-garde’ rather than ‘commonplace’ and is used to describe nearly anything as an advertising gimmick. Designs, science, and people are all commonly called ‘modern’ to suggest sophistication and desirability. However, the act of describing things as modern merely maps the things as being close to the present in time. No actual timeframe or characteristics are denoted. Thus, describing anything as modern requires context and carries no independent meaning without it. Because of the changing nature of the present and because not all places are equally advanced at the same time, modernity is far too complex to pinpoint and impossible to present or observe as a unified state.  Modern is merely  a colloquial  and succinct way of  saying ‘similar to the other stuff you see around you’.   Consequently it is difficult to find “modern” used in academic references. 

Modern with a big M is a historic era and can be labeled ‘Modernism’ rather than ‘modernity’. This sort of Modern is a historical era. Between about 1850 and 1970, many –isms were experimented with. Technology grew more central to culture, emphasis was placed on non-traditional practices such as engineering and nationalism gave way to individualism. Modernism affected all disciplines from medicine to economics to childcare but is most visually distinct in modern art where abstraction succeeded realism. By 1940’s, the Bauhaus school was a conscious manifestation of modernism. Part of  its distinct style was the rejection of ornamentation or reference to past styles. Since the end of the ‘Modern’ era, return to ornament and reference is referred to as ‘post-modern’ and repetition of the particular style is referred to as ‘neo-modern’.

Skeat, Walter. "Modern." In Etymological Dictionary of the English Language. N.p., 1888.

"Modern." In Oxford English Dictionary.

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