Meanings change … but a treadmill will always spell punishment

Posted by on March 18, 2010

© CorbisWhile Oscar Wilde was in Pentonville prison in London, he was forced to walk on a treadmill for several hours a day. When this form of punishment died out, the word treadmill might have gone the same way. But by this time it had acquired a figurative meaning – and this now came to the fore. Until about 25 years ago, most references to a treadmill were in sentences like these from Macmillan’s corpus:

The band had clocked up four months on a promotional treadmill that had become steeper and faster the more ‘Nevermind’ sold.

… one of the highlights of the year in an era which was starved of leisure and wearied by the constant treadmill of work on the land.

But ‘literal’ treadmills got a new lease of life with the massive growth in gyms and personal fitness from the 1980s onwards – though this time users were ‘on a treadmill’ of their own free will. We’re familiar with the process by which new words come into the language and older ones become obsolete, but the fate of treadmill is a nice illustration of how some words go in and out of fashion.

Computer technology means that words like click or browse have undergone an unexpected surge in frequency. The British National Corpus, created in the early 1990s, has only 21 instances of tweet (noun or verb) in its 100 million words, but today you’re likely to hear the word dozens of times every day. When I was at school, wireless was the word older people used when referring to a radio: a classic example of what dictionaries label as dated or old-fashioned vocabulary. That use has almost died out, but wireless has a thriving new existence as an adjective.

The word random, often found in texts dealing with statistics and probability (with words like sample, selection, and variable) has been enthusiastically taken up by younger speakers since the turn of the century. It retains some of its original sense, but with a subtle shift which is not that easy to pin down. Its meaning has become, well, a little more random:

Some random bloke phones me and expects to be given passwords/date of birth – he must think I was born yesterday.

The Urban Dictionary has no fewer than 140 definitions for random, most of them disparaging: ‘The latest buzzword used amongst mindless teenagers’, ‘A word often misused by morons who don’t know very many other words’, and so on. Corpus data shows that its frequency increased year on year from 2001, but random may now have passed its peak, illustrating again the influence of fashion on language change.

A final example is oligarch. A historical oddity – it was used mainly to refer to members of a small, powerful ruling class in ancient Greece – oligarch wouldn’t have figured in most people’s vocabulary 20 years ago. Today it is a common and well-known word, and although its meaning hasn’t really changed, the reference is now almost always to Russian billionaires.

Comments (3)
  • Interesting – had no idea about Oscar Wilde…

    Posted by Sandy on 19th March, 2010
  • I gave this article to my students and they really enjoyed as received a lot of info that they did not knoe before and were surprised to find out that oligarkh is almost Russian word now!

    Posted by AllaSobirova on 19th March, 2010
  • Hey great history on the word treadmill – I think this is very interesting and didn’t even know most of it to be honest. It is funny how meanings change – who knows, there will be words today which will be used differently in the future. I think it is a continuous process.

    Posted by Kammy on 11th July, 2010
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