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All the main English dictionaries give the following as the primary meaning of mundane:

  • Dull; ordinary and not interesting or exciting, especially because of happening too regularly,

(ODO, TFD, M-W, MacMillan.)

Its original meaning:

  • of this earthly world rather than a heavenly or spiritual one, worldly.

appears as the second and less common usage.

Mundane meaning secular, and worldly is derived from Latin mundamus which carried the same definition:

  • mid-15c., "of this world," from Old French mondain "of this world, worldly, earthly, secular;" also "pure, clean; noble, generous" (12c.), from Late Latin mundanus "belonging to the world" (as distinct from the Church), in classical Latin "a citizen of the world, cosmopolite," from mundus "universe, world," literally "clean, elegant".

Etymonline does not mention its more recent meaning as dull, boring, while Ngram shows a considerable increase in the usage of the term from the 1950s.

  • Does anyone know which period this semantic shift took place?
  • How did a word that originally meant worldly, and secular evolve to also mean boring and dull?
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    'When' is a question for OED. 'what plausible grounds' is pretty obvious metaphorical shift, similar to 'vulgar' – Mitch Apr 6 '16 at 19:48
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    @Mitch - I don't have access to the OED and I am not looking for first usage but rather the period during which the semantic change took place, and I am missing the "obviosnees" of the metaphor from worldly to boring, dull. But you are right, etymological questions should have a separate section on ELU. – user66974 Apr 6 '16 at 19:52
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    Your question is unclear. What would you consider "plausible grounds" for the meaning of a word shifting over time? After all, it's not like it did a total flip-flop. – Hot Licks Apr 6 '16 at 22:34
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    I'm merely asking you to define "plausible grounds". The reason for this is that the shift that did occur is entirely expected and consistent, so it would seem to be prima facie "plausible". – Hot Licks Apr 6 '16 at 23:41
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    Oh, I've only now read MετάEd's comment. I like the question, and it sure as hell shows research, so I don't understand why two users have voted to close it. – Mari-Lou A Apr 7 '16 at 23:36
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According to the OED the older sense dates from the 15th century. The first example of the newer, modern meaning (sense 1c), is from 1850:

1850 Littell's Living Age 9 Nov. 269/2 For twenty years his life had flowed in a quiet stream, he growing continually more absorbed in his favourite studies, and leaving all mundane matters to his faithful helpmate.

It is interesting that the original meaning is given priority of place with the Oxford institution.

  • Where is the comparison entry for the older meaning? – Mitch Apr 6 '16 at 20:52
  • OED is a historical dictionary of English; earlier senses are always listed first. This is the main reason why OED should not be used as a primary source for determining most-used modern sense / idiomaticity. – Edwin Ashworth Apr 6 '16 at 21:28
  • @EdwinAshworth It was only a peripheral point to my answer. – WS2 Apr 6 '16 at 21:44
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    @Mitch I was merely trying to answer the OP's question, part of which was When did the semantic change happen?. He did not ask anything about the original meaning of the word. – WS2 Apr 7 '16 at 7:59
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    The OED example really doesn't strike me as a good example. It is merely a poetic way of placing "his favourite studies" in the realm of the sacred. – MetaEd Apr 7 '16 at 20:59
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Historical background of the times might shed light: the 15th century, or 1400's, was a century of upheaval in every way: entire populations died from the plague, changing the balance of power. Seeing the senselessness of the mass deaths, people's imaginations were diverted from God and the Church, which having demonstrated its weakness in the face of such abject death, gave way in its authority to the reasoning mind, and then the Renaissaince. It is during this time that mundane still means noble as well as worldly, finding its source in 12th cent. Latin of the church. The 15th century's events were a process of liberation from the strict peasantry of feudal life as well, as the plague respected no title, but left entire tracts of land ownerless, and therefore ripe for the taking, hence the rise of the guilds and the middle class. From mid 1500s to the start of the revolutions in the 1700's is the time that society, taking its cue from the changing social and cultural environment of curiosity during the Renaissance, Reformation and Enlightenment, relegated mundane to mean merely the everyday business of the world going around, which sees its first uses in the late 19th cent, where we find it now means boring, dull, everyday.

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