Sidewalk: at first glance, the words seems like an excellent to look at the differences between American and British English, with both footpath and pavement being used in British English.
What I’m more interested in though, is the word’s modernity (its first recorded use in the 18th century). I’m always curious about the etymology of words, and the long, meandering histories they can have. I’m fascinated by where words come from, how they evolve over time, and how they’re related to other words. But a modern word like sidewalk might seem to deny me that story. Neologisms like sidewalk require someone or some people to consciously coin a word, rather than it developing naturally over time.
And this is very much an aspect of how language exists in the modern world. Since the Industrial Revolution, the rate of creation of new inventions and related concepts has increased exponentially. So too, therefore, has the rate of creation of new words to describe all these new developments. In a way, this development in how we use language mirrors the way the world in general has changed. Just as the Industrial Revolution gave us the power to shape the world as we want to (for better or worse), rather than us having to adapt to the caprices of nature, so too have we taken more control over language by creating more and more new words.
However, this doesn’t mean that the study of new words is less interesting than those with long and convoluted etymologies. What I love about sidewalk, for example, is its simplicity and directness. It’s just so practical and efficient. We needed a word to describe an area at the side of a road on which people could walk, so it made sense to call it a sidewalk. Footpath is similar: it describes a path which people travel on by foot (as I always want to remind those cyclists who use the footpath and seem to try to head directly for each person in front of them). They’re just so modern in their construction! You can see the Enlightenment ideals of logic and reason at work, and the efficiency and pragmatism of business. They fulfil their functions simply and elegantly.
Words with complex etymologies show how in the past, life revolved around the seasons and language developed organically and slowly just as nature and societies did. Modern words though, show how we’ve taken control of our destiny and our environment, and shape them as we will, just as we shape the language we use to describe them. And this is ongoing: if we can control our language, can we then control our mental development, just as new technologies influence the way we think?