Tag Archives: OED

Have the British finally learnt how to express their emotions?

Jenny Chowdhury took the ‘Philosophical Britain‘ module at Queen Mary in 2016. In this post she writes about ‘Emotion’ as a philosophical keyword, especially in the context of British culture and history.

Can we confidently admit to knowing what ‘emotion’ means? If someone asked you about its definition, what would you say? You could give examples of it such as happiness, sadness and anger. But what does it mean and how do we understand the term today?

Our use of the term ‘emotion’ today is connected to the use of emoticons on social media, not only do we use it on a day-to-day basis, but I want to argue that the younger generation, especially, are overusing it to the extent that we no longer genuinely feel the emotions that we portray on social media. Last year, Oxford Dictionaries Word of the Year was . The use of emoticons/ emojis is clearly taking over our use of language! This is an interesting concept linking to the study on the philosophy of emotion which covers a number of different fields, making the definition even harder to grasp.

To give you a quick history of emoticons and where it came from I came across an interesting article by Tim Slavin. Slavin states that ‘the modern history of emoticons grew out of an interesting side effect of technology: typed messages on a computer screen appear neutral and can be difficult to translate emotionally.’[i] Amy-Mae Elliott expresses how a satirical magazine called Puck used emoticons a hundred years ago when writing about passion and emotions. Some argue that Scott Fahlman, a computer scientist was the first to use symbols to convey emotions through text. Our increasing need for using emoticons when communicating with our friends indicates a new level of expressing ourselves. The term ‘emotion’ appears in a number of discourses such as science, philosophy, popular culture and psychology.

Whatsapp Emoticons

Whatsapp Emoticons

The key thinkers behind the philosophy of ‘emotion’ in Britain are Thomas Brown and Charles Bell during the 1800s. Recently, Thomas Dixon and Fay Alberti have researched the history of emotion. Dixon concentrates on how the term has been in crisis since its connection with psychology in the nineteenth century.

The Greeks used pathos as an alternative to emotion; ‘that which happens to a person or thing.’[ii]  ‘Emotion’ derived from the French word ‘émotion’ which meant physical disturbance and bodily movement in the seventeenth century. The term was first used by John Florio who was a translator of Michel de Montaigne’s essays. During the eighteenth century the definition of ‘emotion’ moved from bodily movements to mental states and instinctive feelings such as pleasure and grief. Close attention was given to the term in the eighteenth century where it was connected to mental experiences. Its theoretical use was influenced by Thomas Brown, Charles Bell and William James in the nineteenth century. Bell’s Anatomy of Expression focused on the artistic portrayal of emotion.

Charles Bell, Essays on the anatomy of Credit: Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images images@wellcome.ac.uk http://wellcomeimages.org BELL, Sir Charles {1774-1842} Charles Bell, Essays on the anatomy of expression in painting, London: Longman, 1806. Page 142 - Wonder / Fear / Astonishment. Published: - Copyrighted work available under Creative Commons Attribution only licence CC BY 4.0 http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/

Charles Bell, Essays on the anatomy of
Credit: Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images
BELL, Sir Charles {1774-1842}
Charles Bell, Essays on the anatomy of expression
in painting, London: Longman, 1806.
Page 142 – Wonder / Fear / Astonishment.

In 1836, William Whewell stated how his notion of desires of human nature being linked to emotions was not accepted. The history of ‘emotion’ dates back to the time of the Stoics who believed that emotions were diseases of the soul which could only be cured through reason. However, for Thomas Aquinas, passions and affections were different parts of the soul where one is the sense appetite and the other is intellectual appetite.[iii]

During the eighteenth century, there was a move towards sensibility alongside passions. Human feelings were categorised into either a violent type of ‘passion’ or a milder ‘moral sentiment’.[iv] A new category for ‘emotion’ in the nineteenth century was invented by Thomas Brown. Brown used the previous connotations such as passions and affections to put them all under one category of ‘emotions.’ This new category dwells on the science of the mind and how ‘emotion’ was used to understand feelings, pleasures, affections, etc.[v] Brown’s definition for ‘emotion’ was that ‘they may be defined to be vivid feelings, arising immediately from the consideration of objects, perceived, or remembered, or imagined, or from other prior emotions.’[vi]

Charles Bell is an important figure as he linked ‘emotion’ to a movement of the mind where affections of the mind were made visible through signs on the face or body. Bell and Brown differed in their opinions towards what constituted an emotion, whether it was primarily mental or bodily. Discussions are still taking place on whether the heart of emotions lie in the heart or the brain.[vii]

Charles Darwin was interested in Charles Bell’s illustrations in his Anatomy and Philosophy of Expression’. However, he noticed that Bell did not explain why different muscles are used for different emotions, for example the arching of eyebrows and mouth expressions. ‘The movements of expression give vividness and energy to our spoken words. They reveal the thoughts and intentions of others more truly than do words, which may be falsified.’[viii]

William James wrote an article called ‘What Is an Emotion?’ in 1884 which opened it up to the public and still to this day there is no definitive meaning behind ‘emotion’. He concluded that emotions were mental feelings brought about by the perception of an object in the world. However, this was not agreed to universally. Dixon’s article, ‘“Emotion”: The History of a Keyword in Crisis’, puts forward an interesting case for the importance of keywords which pose as mirrors and motors for showing social and intellectual change. Concepts are created through giving new meanings to words that are already in our vocabulary.

A century ago, Britain was known for its ‘stiff upper lip’ from the death of Charles Dickens in 1870 until the death of Winston Churchill in 1965. People of this period did not show their emotions. Dixon covers the gendered nature of tears in Weeping Britannia: Portrait of a Nation in Tears. ‘The idea that there was something feminine about tears was never entirely erased.[ix]  Ute Frevert argues that gender ‘“naturalised” emotions while at the same time connecting them to distinct social practices and performances.’[x] Both genders had emotions but they differ in intensity. She argues that ‘emotions, above all social or “relational” emotions, are deeply cultural.’[xi] ‘When humans label their own feelings, those labels begin to give their feelings shape and direction. This is what culture and language do for and to us.’[xii]

In particular regards to the period after the Second World War, a youth group of angry young men emerged in popular culture. British novelists and playwrights expressed their dissatisfaction with the government and class system. John Osborne’s play, Look Back in Anger, represented this new movement. The focus was on the lives of the working class and their typical daily tasks. It shocked the audience as kitchen sink realism was a developing cultural movement in the late 1950s.

A scene from John Osborne’s Look Back in Anger (1959). The constant props of tea-sets on set and the look of anger on the main character, Jimmy, embodies the angry young man movement.

Kleenex ® commissioned SIRC to find out how British people felt about displaying [emotions] [http://www.sirc.org/publik/emotion.shtml] publicly. This emphasises the change in attitudes from a previous ‘stiff upper lip’ stance where it was shameful to show any type of emotions, especially for men. The questions that arises are; is it acceptable to cry and is there a gendered aspect to it? Should emotions be kept private? The report discusses reality shows such as X Factor and Big Brother which publicise a range of different emotions. How do the audience respond to the extent of their emotional journey? There have been studies which conclude that letting out pain and relief through tears works towards improving your well-being, so why is there such a taboo over being too emotional? Should we break out of the conventional view and be able to fully express how we feel in the world that we live in today? The report states that ‘71% of women have ‘let it out’ in the past 6 months by crying compared with 28% of men.’[xiii]

‘We are better at talking about our emotions than in previous generations.’[xiv]

Do you agree with this statement, and if you do, why? Do you think Britain has finally given in to emotions?

I typed in ’emotion’ on YouTube and a number of songs were listed. I have chosen a recent song for this post for you to ponder about. The chorus focuses on emotion and the intensity of feelings can be experienced through her voice. Have a listen and let your emotions run wild.

Word cloud image of this blog-post. A visual image to accompany this post to see what really encapsulates the term 'emotion'.

Word cloud image of this blog-post. A visual image to accompany this post to see what really encapsulates the term ’emotion’.


[i] Tom Slavin, ‘History of Emoticons’, Off Beat (May 2014) <https://www.kidscodecs.com/history-of-emoticons/> [accessed February 2016].

[ii] A. W. Price, ‘Chapter 5: Emotions in Plato and Aristotle’, The Oxford Handbook of Philosophy of Emotion ed. Peter Goldie (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010), p. 121.

[iii] Thomas Dixon, ‘“Emotion”: The History of a Keyword in Crisis’, Emotion Review, Vol. 4, No. 4 (October 2012), p. 399.

[iv] Ibid., p. 399.

[v] Ibid., p. 340.

[vi] Thomas Brown, Thomas Brown: Selected philosophical writings ed. T. Dixon (Exeter: Imprint Academic, 1820/2010), pp. 145-6

[vii] Fay Bound Alberti , Matters of the Heart: History, medicine, emotion (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010).

[viii] Charles Darwin, The expression of the emotions in man and animals (London: John Murray, 1872) p. 366.

[ix] Thomas Dixon, Weeping Britannia: Portrait of a Nation in Tears (Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2015), p. 98.

[x] Ute Frevert, Emotions in History – Lost and Found (Budapest: Central European University Press, 2011), p. 11.

[xi] Ibid., p. 211.

[xii] James M. Jasper, ‘Emotions and Social Movements: Twenty Years of Theory and Research’, Annual Review of Sociology, Vol. 37 (April, 2011) p. 298.

[xiii] ‘Britain: A nation of emotion?’, Social Issues Research Centre (January 2007).

[xiv] Ibid.

Further Reading

‘Angry Young Men’, Encyclopaedia Britannica <http://www.britannica.com/topic/Angry-Young-Men>.

Fay Alberti Bound, Matters of the Heart: History, medicine, emotion (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010).

‘Britain: A nation of emotion?’, Social Issues Research Centre (January 2007).

Thomas Brown, Thomas Brown: Selected philosophical writings ed. T. Dixon (Exeter: Imprint Academic, 1820/2010).

Thomas Dixon, ‘“Emotion”: The History of a Keyword in Crisis’, Emotion Review, Vol. 4, No. 4 (October 2012), pp. 338 – 344.

Thomas Dixon, Weeping Britannia: Portrait of a Nation in Tears (Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2015).

Amy-Mae Elliott, ‘A Brief History of the Emoticon’, Mashable (September 2011).

Emotion Review <http://emr.sagepub.com/content/4/4/338.abstract>.

Ute Frevert, Emotions in History – Lost and Found (Budapest: Central European University Press, 2011).

S. Jacyna, ‘Bell, Sir Charles(1774–1842)’,Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004; online edn, Jan 2008.

James M. Jasper, ‘Emotions and Social Movements: Twenty Years of Theory and Research’, Annual Review of Sociology, Vol. 37 (April, 2011), pp. 285-303.

‘emotion, n.’, OED Online (Oxford: Oxford University Press, February 2016).

W. Price, ‘Chapter 5: Emotions in Plato and Aristotle’, The Oxford Handbook of Philosophy of Emotion ed. Peter Goldie (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010).

Tim Slavin, ‘The History of Emoticons’, Off Beat (May 2014).



Words in history: mirrors or motors?

The Invention of Altruism by Thomas DixonSome years ago I wrote a book devoted to the history of a single philosophical keyword, ‘altruism’, coined by the French philosopher and sociologist Auguste Comte in 1851. It was my first foray into the cultural history of philosophy.

Partly inspired by this previous project, I decided to include a series of posts on the Cultural History of Philosophy blog on ‘Philosophical Keywords’ – short essays on the histories, meanings, and significance of words that have crossed over from philosophy into broader culture. Unsurprisingly, I chose to write the first post in this series on ‘altruism‘. Other keywords will be written about by others, including students taking the ‘Philosophical Britain’ module at Queen Mary.

In the first chapter of my book about altruism, I set out my thoughts about how to approach writing the history of a word. The post below is a short and slightly modified extract from chapter 1 of  The Invention of Altruism: Making Moral Meanings in Victorian Britain (Oxford: Oxford University Press for the British Academy, 2008), and is reproduced here with the kind permission of the British Academy. 

Historians have long recognised the value of words and their changing uses as sources of information about the past. The Victorian lexicographical project headed by James Murray which gave rise to the Oxford English Dictionary was founded on the recognition that the current meanings of a word could not be fully appreciated without some knowledge of the history of its uses. Studying past uses of a word can throw light on more than simply the processes by which it took on its present meanings, however. Richard Chenevix Trench, the scholarly clergyman whose speech was one of the driving forces behind the original plans for what was to become the OED, was someone who recognised the potential of words as historical sources, arguing that past uses of a word could also illuminate the cultures and societies within which they had occurred. His book The Study of Words (1851), which was made up of lectures delivered to an audience of trainee teachers, used the history of words to explore the history of humanity. Trench endorsed Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s view, expressed in the latter’s Aids to Reflection (1825), that there were cases when ‘more knowledge of more value may be conveyed by the history of a word than by the history of a campaign.’[1]

In the twentieth century, other writers adopted Trench’s idea that words could bear testimony to past realities; that they could act as witnesses. Two members of the Oxford group of writers known as the Inklings, C. S. Lewis and Owen Barfield, both wrote historical studies based on the same central idea. Barfield, in his History in English Words, first published in 1926, compared the English language, along with the other languages of the world, with ‘an imperishable map’ which ‘has preserved for us the inner, living history of man’s soul’.[2] His friend C. S. Lewis’s Studies in Words, first published in 1960, and based on lectures given to Cambridge students in the 1950s, consisted of a series of essays on words chosen for ‘the light they throw on ideas and sentiments’ that prevailed in past societies and as an ‘aid to more accurate reading’ of the literature within which they were used.[3] The words chosen included ‘nature’, ‘wit’, ‘simple’ and ‘conscience’, and were illustrated with a wealth of examples from philosophical, literary, and religious works in classical, medieval and modern languages. Although Lewis claimed that his studies were ‘merely lexical’, they in fact shed considerable light on historical matters; and Lewis took a particular interest in the social and moral status associated with certain uses of key words. His essay on the interrelated connotations of ‘free’, ‘frank’, ‘villain’, and ‘liberal’ is a particularly good illustration of this approach.[4]

Historians of modern Britain and its language have noted that the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, with their dramatic industrial and scientific transformations, saw the English vocabulary expanded and enriched by a wide range of new terms. Eric Hobsbawm opened his study of the Age of Revolution with the observation that ‘Words are witnesses which often speak louder than documents’, and went on to mention ‘factory’, ‘railway’, ‘scientist’, ‘proletariat’, ‘Utilitarian’, ‘sociology’, and ‘ideology’ as examples of key English words which ‘were invented, or gained their modern meanings’ in the period between 1789 and 1848.  Their importance for Hobsbawm was as pointers to the arrival or transformation of ‘the things and concepts for which they provide names.’ [5] The French linguist Georges Matoré, writing in the 1950s, made a distinction between mots temoins and mots clés – witness words and key words. The former category consisted of neologisms arising from material, technological, social or intellectual changes or turning-points.[6] The terms on Hobsbawm’s list would fit into this category. Key words, on the other hand, for Matoré, were words that captured the leading idea or sentiment of a whole society or period. He suggested prud’homme and philosophe as early modern French key words.[7]

The most influential study of witness words and key words in the English language has undoubtedly been Raymond Williams’ 1976 book, Keywords: A Vocabulary of Culture and Society. Williams explained that, on returning to Cambridge after the war in 1945, it seemed to him that the whole vocabulary of the place had changed – that people were speaking a different language. He heard the word ‘culture’ much more often, for example, to signify a cluster of values or a way of life.[8] The resulting study, eventually completed thirty years later,  was an alphabetically arranged dictionary of key words in modern English, such as ‘art’, ‘bourgeois’, ‘charity’, ‘democracy’, ‘elite’, ‘family’, and so on. Each entry offered etymological, historical, and semantic reflections on the developing definitions, connotations, and significance of the chosen words. Williams himself struggled to classify his book but suggested it might be considered a contribution to cultural history, historical semantics, literary history, sociology, and the history of ideas.[9] When I refer to ‘altruism’ as a ‘key word’ in this book, I intend something closer to Williams’ quite broad sense of that term than to Matoré’s more ambitious idea of a mot-clé.

Many of the suggestions surveyed in the previous paragraphs inform The Invention of Altruism in quite obvious ways. ‘Altruism’ could be described both as a witness to significant shifts in the sources of moral authority, and also as a key word that captured some of the most characteristic sentiments and ideas of the Victorian period. The pattern of its dissemination from its Comtean origins, via the writings of a small group of intellectuals, into a wide and various range of other texts, in which it took on multiple meanings, could be thought of as constituting a map of intellectual and social connections. I hope to go somewhat beyond these characterisations, however. While it is useful to think of words as witnesses to historical transformations, and of linguistic change as a map or mirror of social change, metaphors such as these are very passive. They rely on the idea that real historical change is material, social, political, technological, or even emotional and intellectual, and that we can map or track such fundamental change by looking at linguistic change, which is then little more than a marker or by-product.[10] These passive metaphors can be supplemented by more active ones.

The image of a word as a key with which to unlock and open up the texts and values of a previous culture is certainly less passive than the idea of language as a map or mirror. However it depicts the word as something in the hands of the historian rather than of its past users. If we want to think about linguistic change as more than merely epiphenomenal, then we could look at the history of words as a branch of the history of technology. Doing so would be to recognise the obvious fact that words are tools that allow people to do things such as creating identities for themselves, arguing with each other, and articulating new visions of the natural and social worlds.[11] Linguistic change can be seen as a kind of social, technological, ethical, and intellectual change itself, rather than as a map or mirror of such change. One could go even further and think of linguistic change as the motor of other kinds of change. Many new identities, new ideas, and new ideologies rely for their existence on the creation of new words or on the transformation of the meanings of old ones. As Quentin Skinner puts it, by tracing the genealogy of our evaluative vocabularies, we ‘find ourselves looking not merely at the reflections but at one of the engines of social change.’[12]


[1] On Trench’s philological works and his admiration for Coleridge’s conception of words as ‘living powers’, see McKusick 1992, esp. 12-17

[2] Barfield 1954, 14; quoted in G. Hughes 1988, 1.

[3] C. S. Lewis 1967, vii.

[4] Ibid., 111-32.

[5] Hobsbawm 1973, 13-14.

[6] Matoré 1953, 65-7.

[7] Ibid., 67-70; see also G. Hughes 1988, 24-5; G. Hughes 2000, 30-2.

[8] R. Williams 1976, 9.

[9] Ibid., 11. A recent, multi-authored volume, directly inspired by Williams’ 1976 book, is New Keywords: A Revised Vocabulary of Culture and Society. It includes ‘alternative’, ‘biology’, ‘celebrity’, ‘deconstruction’, ‘ethnicity’, ‘fundamentalism’, and so on; Bennett et al. 2005. This new volume seems generally to put rather less emphasis than Williams on historical semantics and more on cultural and social theory.

[10] This is the model that I tended to favour myself in my study of the transition from theories of ‘passions’ to theories of ‘emotions’ in the nineteenth century. Dixon 2003, 249-51.

[11] My approach here is similar to Neil Kenny’s. He has written that his approach to the history of the language of ‘curiosity’ is ‘designed to replace any approach that would see language as a mere epiphenomenon of underlying social, cultural, or intellectual contexts, as a mere “effect” that is “caused” by them.’ Kenny 2004, 24.

[12] Skinner 2002, 178.


Barfield, Owen (1954). History in English Words. New edition. London, Faber and Faber.

Bennett, Tony, et al. (eds) (2005). New Keywords: A Revised Vocabulary of Culture and Society. Oxford, Blackwell.

Dixon, Thomas (2003). From Passions to Emotions: The Creation of a Secular Psychological Category. Cambridge, Cambridge University Press.

Hobsbawm, Eric (1973). The Age of Revolution: Europe 1789-1848. London, Cardinal. First edition 1962.

Hughes, Geoffrey (1988). Words in Time: A Social History of the English Vocabulary. Oxford, Blackwell.

Hughes, Geoffrey (2000). A History of English Words. Oxford, Blackwell.

Kenny, Neil (2004). The Uses of Curiosity in Early Modern France and Germany. Oxford, Oxford University Press.

Lewis, C. S. (1967). Studies in Words. Second edition. Cambridge, Cambridge University Press. First edition 1960.

Matoré, Georges (1953). La Méthode en Lexicologie: Domaine Français. Paris, Didier.

McKusick, James C. (1992). ‘“Living Words”: Samuel Taylor Coleridge and the Genesis of the OED.’ Modern Philology 90: 1-45.

Skinner, Quentin (2002). Visions of Politics. Volume I: Regarding Method. Cambridge, Cambridge University Press.

Trench, Richard Chenevix (n.d.). On the Study of Words; and English Past and Present. Everyman’s Library. London, J. M. Dent and Sons. First edition 1851.

Williams, Raymond (1976). Keywords: A Vocabulary of Culture and Society. London, Croom Helm.