The word "blurb" derives from a "pulchritudinous young lady" of that fictional name who appeared on a book-cover at the turn of the century. Quarrying the "Oxford English Dictionary" for its evidence, this book traces the extraordinary way in which English words have changed their meanings over the past millennium. These shifts both reflect Britain's rich history and reveal the social determinants of the language. In English vocabulary is stored the "archaeological" evidence of such great social transformations as the Norman Conquest, the growth of capitalism, the coming of the Reformation and the evolution of feudal hierarchy into democracy. The key terms reflecting these changes are discussed in detail and set out in a variety of word fields. The invention of printing and the development of mass media have accelerated the rate of change in the language to a remarkable and unprecedented degree. Professor Hughes traces the impact of journalism, as well as the "linguistic capitalism" of advertising, and analyzes the techniques whereby words are made the vehicles of political propaganda and national ideology. The book illuminates the dual aspect of language.
Words are simultaneously fossils in which the culture of the past is stored, and vital organisms responsive to the pressures of the present. They do not change their meanings in an entirely arbitrary fashion, but form a revealing segment of social evidence.
Introduction - words and social change; words of conquest and status - the semantic legacy of the middle ages; moneyed words - the growth of capitalism; mobilization of words - printing, the Reformation and the Renaissance; the fourth estate - journalism; advertising - linguistic capitalism and wordsmithing; words and power - democracy and language; ideology and propaganda; conclusion - verbicide and semantic engineering.