Contemporaneous - contemporary

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The adjective contemporary should be used with care: it has two meanings. Writers may be better advised to use the cognate contemporaneous, which has only one.

  • Contemporary, which is basically an adjective but can also be used substantively, has two meanings, which can be confusing, and are often confused.
Etymological note: The root meaning is 'existing at the same time' (Latin con- 'with' + tempus (genitive temporis) 'time': the formation contemporary is an English coinage, classical Latin having used contemporaneus and contemporalis. In the seventeenth century the common form was co-temporary.
    • Contemporary therefore means 'at the same time as'. Historians may use it to describe accounts of an event written at, or very close to the time that the event itself happened: 'Contemporary accounts suggest that this was the result of a conspiracy, but it is now known that this was not so'; geologists may record that a stratum of rocks in one area is contemporary with another type of rock in another place. The usual construction is 'contemporary with ...'
      • As a substantive, 'a contemporary' is 'a person living at the same time [as the person of whom we are speaking]'. The usual construction is 'a contemporary of ...': 'Ben Jonson was a contemporary of Shakespeare's.'
    • However, contemporary is frequently used in the rather different sense of 'happening now' (i.e. 'at the same time as I am now writing'). This use is particularly common in discussion of arts: contemporary music is variously limited, but refers to music written after the first world war. The International Society for Contemporary Music was founded in Salzburg in 1922 by a group that included Bartók (1881-1945), Kodály (1882-1967), Hindemith (1895-1963), Milhaud (1892-1974) and Webern (1883-1945). The title Contemporary American Fiction: An Introduction to American Fiction Since 1970 (Millard, Kenneth; 2000) shows a different date, but the same sense of 'contemporary' as ~ 'modern', as does, in the visual arts, the Institute of Contemporary Arts founded by Roland Penrose and Herbert Read in 1947. This use extends to fashions in, for example, furnishing, where contemporary furniture, as designed for example by Ludwig Mies Van Der Rohe (1886-1969), uses laminated wood, steel tubes and cantilevered chairs, and other 'modern' (~ 'contemporary') pieces.


  • AWE advises writers who want to avoid the ambiguity possible in these two meanings of contemporary to use contemporaneous to mean 'existing at the same time [as the person or phenomenon of which I have just been speaking]' - that is the only meaning of contemporaneous - and 'modern' or 'current' to mean 'existing at the same time as me', 'of the present time'.
You may want to see an article about the spelling of contemporary, which can cause difficulties: go to Temporary - Contemporary (spelling).
Etymological note: Contemporaneous, like contemporary, comes from the Latin tempus, (genitive temporis) 'time'.