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01157-- The Birth of Standard English




The Birth of Standard English

In Victorian times, as education spread and people entering the middle class tried to speak “proper” English, the English language became more homogeneous.  Increased literacy also stabilized English, since the written language tends to change more slowly than the spoken.  The period also saw the beginning of an effort to compile a definitive record of the histories, uses, and meanings of English words, resulting in the massive Oxford English Dictionary, the first volume of which was published in 1884.  This landmark work, completed in 1928 and revised several times since, traces the changes in meaning of each entry word from its first recorded use to the present.

Jargon and Euphemisms

Victorian advances in the natural and social sciences spurred the coinage of new words, such as telephone, photography, psychiatrist, and feminist.  The new fields of study developed their own specialized and technical vocabulary, or jargon, which began to infiltrate everyday speech.  Euphemisms—mild or vague terms substituted for words considered harsh or offensive—also grew more popular as Victorian propriety made certain words taboo.  A chicken breast became “white meat”; the legs, “drumsticks.”  Even words such as belly and stallion were prudishly avoided.

Slang

Although “proper” circles frowned on slang, it was widely used among the lower classes as a means of conversing safely in the presence of outsiders, including the police.  The Cockneys of London’s East End developed an elaborate system of rhyming slang in early Victorian times—using, for example, loaf to mean “head” because loaf is the first word in the expression loaf of bread, which rhymes with head.  The expression “use your loaf” is still common in the East End today.

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