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The main definition of the adjective modern is of or relating to recent times or the present. For describing 21st-century things, though, modern can have unwanted connotations. The word is often associated with the cultural movements of the early to middle 20th century (before postmodernism). These movements were modern at the time, but to us they may seem dated. So, for example, describing a new work of art as modern may actually give the impression that it takes its cues from artists who are now long gone.

Modern has also been used to denote the period of history from the Renaissance to the late 20th century, and to contrast modern Homo sapiens with archaic forms of our species. But the word’s 20th-century-related connotations are strongest.

The connotations usually don’t bog down modern when it describes general things such as social trends and political movements, but we might be careful when using the word for things like art, architecture, technology, and music. For describing these 21-century things, there are plenty of good alternatives such as current, contemporary, recent, or 21st-century.


For example, modern carries 20th-century overtones in each of these instances:

The late Martha Graham, one of the preeminent pioneers of modern dance, received a birthday animation tribute Wednesday. [Los Angeles Times]

We stayed at the boutique Fasano hotel – a design classic in its own right, with mid-century modern furniture, dark wood and exposed brickwork . [Evening Standard]

Sonny Rollins’ heroic music has outlived America’s ignorance of modern jazz. [Sydney Morning Herald]