Nineteenth-century English

by Lynda Mugglestone, Professor of the History of English at the University of Oxford and Fellow and Tutor in English at Pembroke College.


For many people the nineteenth century was a time of profound and accelerated change; one in which, as the poet and writer Thomas Arnold remarked, it seemed possible to live ‘the life of three hundred years in thirty’ (Letters on the Social Conditions of the Operative Classes, 1831–2). Industrialization, urbanization, as well as the emergence of new technologies and new scientific discoveries all meant that the realities of daily life differed markedly between 1800 and 1900. Education and levels of literacy also experienced significant change. Revolutions in printing technology meant that books and newspapers could be produced faster—and more cheaply—than ever before and the General Education Act of 1870 (by which all children in Britain received compulsory schooling) meant that, by 1900, more people than ever before were able to read.

As in previous eras, language serves as an admirable witness to both history and change. Nineteenth-century conflicts such as the Crimean War are memorialized in words such ascardigan (named after James Brudenell, seventh earl of Cardigan who led the Charge of the Light Brigade) and balaclava (which derives from the name of a Crimean village near Sebastopol which was the scene of one of the war’s battles). Words such as bloomers(named after the social reformer Amelia J. Bloomer) and blue-stocking (as well asemancipatress) conversely still evoke the history of very different battles, and the various conflicts which surrounded female dress, education, and independence.

Click on the links below to learn more about changing English in the nineteenth century: