What is a prestidigitator you ask? An illusionist or magician! When is that last time you can think of someone using the word prestidigitator in normal conversation? No one calls David Copperfield a prestidigitator, and I dont blame them. Calling him a magician is much easier. Its strange how words can change meaning over time and how some words stop being used entirely. Believe it or not, vocabulary can be a major road block when doing research in historical newspapers and other historical documents because it can be so different. We actually have a term that we use to describe these vocabulary differences: historic vocabulary. We use this phrase to describe words and phrases that were used by the people living during those times. Our vocabulary is like a living organism that grows, changes, and dies. Some words that we use today were never heard of 100 or even 50 years ago and vice versa. The change in vocabulary can be caused by several factors. Much like todays technology, a newer, better, version of a word could be created thereby rendering the old word obsolete, such as the word betwixt (between).
In 1918, New Berlin, Ohio, became North Canton, Ohio, due to anti-German sentiment (El Paso Herald, February 11, 1918, Image 1, col. 2).
Geographical locations, like city and country names, are also example of how vocabulary can change and make it difficult for researchers to find a particular location. Try locating the town of New Berlin, Ohio, on a map. You will be looking for a while because that town no longer exists with that name. It is currently called North Canton and is located in Stark County. The village of New Berlin was founded in 1831 and was inhabited by mostly Germans immigrants. With the outbreak of World War I in 1914, it became very unpopular to be associated with anything German (sauerkraut was even re-named liberty cabbage in several restaurants). In 1918, the citizens of New Berlin decided to re-name the village North Canton, abandoning the original name. So if you are looking for information about North Canton in the newspapers prior in 1918, you actually need to look for New Berlin. A word can also change what it means based on new inventions. Take the word computer for example. We use it in todays language to describe the everyday machines that we use today for our Internet browsing needs, work, and just about anything else you can think of. Our definition of what a computer is did not come into existence until the 1940s. Prior to that, a computer was simply referring to a person who performed calculations or one who computes.
An example of how the word “computer” was used in the 19th century. These calculations were made by a person, not a machine! (Logan Ohio Democrat, July 23, 1887, Image 3, col. 7)