Extra Credit Opportunity: Changing Diction in Newspapers

Simantini Deonarain suggested the following extra credit assignment. This might be good for folks who want to earn extra credit but might not be able to attend some of the events that I’ve offered as extra credit opportunities. Here’s what you need to do. Write at least 250 words comparing how words are used and what words are used (diction) in two New York Times articles–one from the late-nineteenth or early-twentieth century, and one from this year. You will want to explain two or three examples that you find, and remember to quote the examples (these do not count toward your 250 words). Elaborate on each example in your own words–what do they mean in the context of the article and the time in which it was written. Don’t assume that your reader knows these things. Conclude with a sentence or two of your own thoughts about how the changes you observed happened and/or what these changes might mean. Finally, create bibliographic entries for each article using APA format.

Example with a search for something I’m interested in: computers:



Another example: social media:



One thought on “Extra Credit Opportunity: Changing Diction in Newspapers”

  1. TO: Professor Dr. Jason W. Ellis
    FROM: Ronald C. Hinds
    SUBJECT: Changing Diction in Newspapers
    DATE: April 08, 2018

    The writer of an old 19th century letter to the editor in the New York Times of eight score and seven years ago indulges in flowery, almost circuitous, language to discuss modern translations of the English Bible. The writer laments about “men who have some modest and fitting apprehension of the copious and affluence of our language.” The writer leans toward the reliance upon those who have the “selectest gifts” wherever the English Language is spoken. His remarks smack of specialization in that even the most revered and accomplished scholars of the day ought to be the standard bearers of a more modernized, English translation of a centuries-old and established publication such as the King James Bible. His assertion that such an endeavor is “a demand, to say the least, not very remarkable for its modesty or good sense” and that, to take up such a challenge outside of England, begs that we “Choose out the men whom we know, and whom the world knows. Shall England be shut out from the honorable toil and a handful among the millions in this New World assume to do all?” serve to exemplify the writer’s belief that even the greatest scholars of American literature would not be worthy of this task.

    A more recent article concerning the subject of translation comes from another New York Times edition, this one dated September 19, 2017, and titled. “In New Zealand, a Translated ‘Moana’ Bolsters an Indigenous Language.” This newer piece is more informal and less stilted than the 19th century piece. The page layout and style are different, too, and easier to read in this current conversational format. Charlotte Graham-McLay writes about the Maori people’s attempt to maintain continuity of their language and their cultural traditions. Instead of the metaphoric “this oak of ages,” the 21st century piece is very plain and conversational and not so scholarly. Graham-McLay writes about a way to preserve the language thusly: “The language has got to be made cool and sexy and relevant to young people.” She intones that the Disney hit, “Moana,” translated into the indigenous language of New Zealand Pacific Islanders can be useful as a tool to attract young people to the language.

    I think it interesting to note that both of these New York Times entries–one from 1851 and the other from 2017–are about translation and that translation directly concerns itself with many different languages. Also that changing diction in these examples of the printed English language is that of which we will take note here.

    In examining the 1851 Times missive outlined earlier, I found only subtle differences in literate expression from those used today. However, a few examples did present themselves in the area of turns of phrase, which accentuate the time of its publication. For instance, “….of such as like to see now” which today might be said, “such as we see today.” Our 2017 New York Times counterpart expresses the opposite sentiment with the phrase, “…unlike any they had ever seen.”

    Another phrase in the 2017 article is “efforts to revitalize,” another being, “make that happen,” whereas its 1851 counterpart uses the term, “essaying to act,” which, by today’s standard of diction, might be said, as “attempting to act.”

    Others of note from 1851: “now-a-days,” whose usage prevails today but as a single word minus the hyphenation.

    “Down-country home,” which describes a rustic, rural residence in an area that today might be called, simply, “down-home.”

    “High-sounding,” a term still in some use today but more memorably associated today with the coarser vernacular, “high-falutin.”

    “Selectest,” more commonly phrased today as “most select.”

    Finally, “in the room of,” this today would be more commonly phrased as “in place of.”

    I advocate automated language translation technology via Google Translate. It has a few quirks but it may be the best that is currently available. It is only accessible in 100 languages out of approximately 7,000 languages in the world. So we have a long way to go. A piece by Nicholas Casey, in the New York Times of December 26, 2017, titled, “Thousands Once Spoke His Language in the Amazon, Now, He’s the Only One,” captures the steady erosion of languages. “37 languages have disappeared in Peru alone.” The writer continues and reports that “Forty-seven languages remain here in Peru, scholars estimate, and nearly half are at a risk of disappearing.”

    The question is how can Google Translate protect and staunch the loss of languages? Without language will the choice and use of words and phrases in speech or writing be relevant?

    In a perfect egalitarian world, automated language translation technology should be available to all, and then we can fully realize Marshall McLuhan’s global village. Even alterations to our diction spanning over 167 years can be less of a barrier to digesting the writing of the past.


    Our Old English Bible. (1851, October). New York Times. Retrieved from https://timesmachine.nytimes.com/timesmachine/1851/10/29/87823220.pdf.

    Casey, N. (2017, December). Thousands Once Spoke His Languages in the Amazon. Now, He’s the Only One.” New York Times.
    https://www.nytimes.com/2017/12/26/world/americas/peru-amazon-the-end.html. Retrieved on April 05, 2018.

    Graham-McLay, C. (2017, September). Asia Pacific | Auckland Journal.
    New York Times. Retrieved from https://www.nytimes.com/2017/09/19/world/asia/maori-moana-new-zealand.html

    Keywords: Diction, egalitarian, high-falutin, technology, translation

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