Themes Changing Our Language

The English language is constantly evolving, with new words and meanings entering the lexicon in response to changes in technology, culture and society. During the 20th Century, 185,000 new words and meanings were added, which is a 25% increase in the amount of words in the vocabulary. The infographic below illustrates the main themes that influenced the creation of new words and meanings in each decade of the last century. This illustrates people's preoccupations at the time, and also how the language grew in response to new discoveries and new technologies.

Click on the infographic to enlarge it.

themes changing our language infographic

The changing English vocabulary

Samuel Johnson is credited with compiling the first modern dictionary of the English language in 1755, which included 40,000 words. The next major attempt at creating a comprehensive record of words in the language was in 1928, with the publication of the Oxford English Dictionary.

At the start of the 20th Century, new developments in transport required new words. Some of these were absorbed from other languages. For example, the French were pioneers in the development of the car, and several words entered into English from that source, such as ‘limousine’ and ‘garage’.

Major events and world affairs that affected the country also influenced the language. The World Wars saw military terms and phrases emerge, such as ‘gas mask’, ‘tank’ and ‘black-out’. The post-war period brought reconstruction and social change, as well as the Cold War, introducing terms such as ‘welfare state’, ‘superpower’ and ‘nukes'.

Computer terminology grew in the 1940s from small beginnings as the technology was developed, giving rise to an abundance of new words and meanings by the end of the century, including those associated with the internet, like ‘website’. Different types of media have also had an influence across most of the last century, which saw the development of radio and television communications introduce words such as ‘hi-fi’ and ‘videotape’.

Concern about the health of the environment grew steadily from the 1970s, contributing terms such as ‘global warning’ and providing new meanings for ‘green’. It is notable that the term ‘greenhouse effect’ was first used by climatologists in the 1920s but did not come into common use until the 1980s.

The English language is still changing and developing into the 21st Century. Researchers have found that the rate of expansion of the English vocabulary is increasing. It is estimated that 8,500 new words have been added to the language every year since the start of the new century, taking the total to just over one million.

Timeline design

The infographic displays the main influences on the expansion of the English language against a timeline. Each theme is represented by an icon above the relevant decade(s) in the timeline. The numbering of each decade uses a font representative of a design style of that time.

The timeline device allows the large amount of information to be viewed in the context of the time period, as well as against other contemporary influences. The timeline also illustrates how the influences have changed over the one hundred years.


Alleyne, R. (2010). English language has doubled in size in the last century. The Telegraph, 16 December 2010 [online].

Ayto, J. (1999). Twentieth Century Words. Oxford University Press.

Eleftheriou-Smith, L. (2017). Samuel Johnson: How was the first modern English language dictionary created? Independent, 18 September 2017 [online].

This infographic appeared in JONO Design e-news. The e-news is published once every couple of months and each issue contains a specially designed infographic.

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