I’m wondering if there is a formal way of determining if something is considered ‘Modern’?

For example,

No one in a modern war has ever ...
Modern farming techniques have ...
Modern smartphones need to be able to ...
The modern interpretation of the law takes ...
The modern [Insert Person Type] now knows to ...

I ask because I can see a few different ways of defining something to be Modern.

  1. Modern is a static metric similar to Antique (over 100 years old) and is defined by a fixed time lapse.
  2. Modern is defined by being the last iteration of the subject. This is what I think, but it would mean that only the most recent ware would be considered to be modern (war technology and strategy keep evolving).
  3. If something is Modern, it is a subjective descriptor. Someone will determine something to be modern when they can see a clear distinction between the subject and its precursor or successor.
  4. Modern is subject-dependent and hence has no global definition. A modern [Insert Noun] is defined differently than a modern [Insert Event Type].

Normally, I can easily see when something new is modern, but I’m having a harder time determining when something is no longer considered to be modern. When will WWI or WWII or [Insert conflict past 1942] no longer be considered modern wars?"

  • 11
    You have yourself answered your question very well: the word is used in different ways in different contexts, and these four ways of defining it capture different ways of using it. It is not clear what else you expect to be said on the matter. What do you mean by 'a formal way of determining' its meaning?
    – jsw29
    Commented Jun 28 at 15:35
  • 7
    English doesn't have convenient answers to all reasonable questions. 'You'll know a word by the company it keeps' is a maxim stressing the need for interpretation using context. Not always easy. Commented Jun 28 at 15:39
  • 6
    Modern English has been spoken since the 17th century. A modern smartphone could be one introduced - what? - less than a year ago. Commented Jun 28 at 16:45
  • 3
    I would go so far as to say that a word so nebulous is often a bad choice, except where a use case is rigidly defined (Modernism, Modern English etc.), and where vagary is intended ("Let's take a more modern approach..."). Commented Jun 28 at 17:59
  • 4
    Also, it has a dangerously short half-life of accuracy. The violinist Biagio Marini published a set of "Curious and Modern Inventions"... in 1629. Commented Jun 28 at 18:00

3 Answers 3


The Merriam Webster English dictionary offers a good understanding of how this word works.

Definition (Entry 1 of 2)

1a :of, relating to, or characteristic of the present or the immediate past: CONTEMPORARY //the modern American family 1b :of, relating to, or characteristic of a period extending from a relevant remote past to the present time //modern history

2 :involving recent techniques, methods, or ideas: UP-TO-DATE //modern methods of communication

  1. : capitalized: of, relating to, or having the characteristics of the present or most recent period of development of a language. //Modern English

  2. :of or relating to modernism: MODERNIST //Modern art has abandonued the representation of recognizable objects.

There is, of course a spare word, contemporary, which can be used to refer unambiguously to some stated period of time. So we could write in a history of Athens in the 5th century that the works of four of its contemporary playwrights "continue to be relevant today."

The use of today and now gives further chances to set the context of interpretation. Both can be used with reference to the past provided the context is carefully set.

Back then, in the Autumn of 1941, he had been master of all Europe: now, in 1945, he was helpless in his subterranean dungeon.


Depends on the context and item. For things like languages and certain ways of doing things, "modern" can mean anything of the past couple hundred years, as the 'early modern' era traditionally applies to the European Renaissance and slightly after (16th through 18th century). For many technologies and ideologies for example, the earliest 'modern' can mean as recent as the past few decades or years. Here's a few examples of when "modern" things originated

  • Modern architecture (styles of architecture with no historical ornamentation) - 1920s and 1930s
  • Modern English (that which is at least somewhat intelligible to current speakers of English) - 1500s
  • Modern art (think Picasso, impressionism, etc) - 1920s
  • Modern ideologies (such as Marxism, Nazism, fascism, liberalism, current versions of libertarianism, etc) - 1848 to 1970s
  • Modern Monetary Theory (the economic theory that suggests active government involvement in the economy via massive currency printing and heavy taxation is the route to a healthy and relatively equitable economy) - 1992
  • Modern electronic devices (cellphones, laptops, tablet computers, walkmans, etc) - 1980s to present.

The term "contemporary" usually implies the past few decades to the present, so for example, the 1990s could be considered contemporary history. On the other hand, "modern", depends upon who's interpretation is used, could refer to anything of the 20th or 21th centuries. And in certain historical studies, " modern" is used for everything and everyone after the medieval period (ie, post 15th century in most interpretations), as in "Modern English". Besides being a synonym for " modern ", " contemporary " also refers to something that existed, an event that occurred, or someone who lived in the same era as another famous person, event or thing.

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    – Community Bot
    Commented Jul 1 at 4:44
  • Modern art is generally reckoned to have started in the 1860s with Impressionism. Wikipedia has articles on modern art, modern architecture, etc.
    – Stuart F
    Commented Jul 2 at 9:42

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