Survey Seminar Series Spring 2011

The Survey of English Usage organises a number of seminars each year for staff and students from the Faculty of Arts and Humanities and beyond. They are generously sponsored by the English Department.

The following research seminars will take place during the Spring term in Foster Court Room 220 at 4pm.

Wed 9
  Dr Kathryn Allan (UCL)

An academic question? Exploring the meaning of a contemporary keyword through historical text resources.

The adjective academic has both positive and negative senses in Present Day English: it can describe anything related to higher learning or ‘scholarly’, but it is also used to mean ‘unpractical’ or ‘trivial’. This seems to reflect popular opinion about higher education in modern society: there is a tension between, on the one hand, the perceived prestige and value associated with scholarly activity and higher learning and, on the other, a view of non-vocational learning as indulgent and lacking practical use, and of academic institutions as irrelevant ‘ivory towers’ cut off from real life. Since academic seems to be caught up with contemporary debates about the nature of academia, it could be considered a modern keyword in Raymond Williams’ sense: a word that has ‘virtually forced itself on my attention because the problems of its meaning seemed to me inextricably bound up with the problems it was being used to discuss’ (Williams 1976: 13).

The pejorated ‘unpractical’ sense of academic is first attested in OED2 in 1886, although some preliminary research using the Times Digital Archive suggests that there are slightly earlier examples (and therefore that redating in OED3 is likely). This paper considers whether large-scale historical text resources such as the Times Digital Archive and the 19th Century British Library Newspapers Database can offer fresh insights into the emergence of new polysemous senses that appear to be clearly culturally motivated. It explores possible triggers for a pejorated sense of academic, and examines the process by which the emerging new sense becomes more frequent and less contextually restricted.

Wed 23
Justyna Robinson (University of Sheffield)
An awesome talk: Exploring recent changes in the meaning of words.

The main source of our knowledge on the change of meaning of words comes from investigating completed changes that took place a relatively long time ago (mostly pre-20th c. changes). However, very little attention has been given to changes in the meaning of words that are happening as we speak. Such changes are often considered just temporary fluctuations, therefore may have been considered less important to investigate than completed changes.

While it is surprising that researchers so rarely explore the rich possibilities offered by investigating current semantic usage, there are also practical difficulties with detecting and gauging change in progress. In this presentation I discuss possible ways of overcoming these methodological difficulties associated with investigating semantic change in progress. I will suggest that sociolinguistic methods of tracing linguistic change can be particularly helpful here.

The discussion will revolve around the analysis of the survey data I collected in 2006 and will focus on the exploration of the change of meaning of selected adjectives (awesome, gay, and skinny).

All welcome! Drinks afterwards.

Past events

This page last modified 28 May, 2015 by Survey Web Administrator.