by Julie A. S. Cassidy
While the definition of the term “popular” has remained relatively unchanged for over four hundred years, its connotation certainly takes on new meaning when applied to children’s literature. In Keywords, Raymond Williams (1983a) reports that the term “popular” was “originally a legal and political term” that first came into the English language in the late fifteenth century. Within the domain of the legal system, an “action popular” was any suit that was open to or brought forth by anyone who was part of the general public. According to the Oxford English Dictionary (OED), in the early sixteenth century the term “popular” defined the “common people” or people of “lowly birth” as opposed to people of the aristocracy. By the late sixteenth century (the OED cites 1599), the intention behind the word shifted slightly to invite negative similes such as low, vulgar, and plebeian. Nine short years later, in 1608, “popular” appeared for the first time as a positive attribute indicating that a subject was a favorite, acceptable, and pleasing to numerous people. The change from a pejorative to a complementary connotation reflected the beginning of the “common” people’s effect on culture. Well into the twentieth century, the term “popular” continued to contain these diametrically opposed negative and positive connotations, particularly when describing texts created for and read by children.