Language Surrounding Poverty in Early Modern England: A Corpus-based Investigation of How People Living in the Seventeenth Century Perceived the Criminalised Poor

In: From Data to Evidence in English Language Research
Authors: Tony McEnery and Helen Baker

Abstract

This study uses a corpus of approximately one billion words from the seventeenth century, based on data drawn from Early English Books Online, to explore shifting attitudes to the criminalised poor in England in the period. Using the methods of corpus linguistics, the study explores the representation of this group, attitudes towards them and the link, if any, between the group and punishment in public discourse. The focus is on four terms frequently applied to the group in this period, beggar, rogue, vagabond and vagrant. While all of these words appear, ostensibly, to be synonyms, this paper argues that they are near synonyms. Moreover, in the exploration of the differences in meaning between them as evidenced from the corpus data, we gain insights into the differing ways in which the group was perceived and labelled in the century.

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