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I recall that "spectacles" would be the preferred word when I was growing up. It was often shortened to "specs".

"Glasses" were the ones you wore either in the sun (sunglasses) or while driving or to protect your eyes from wind or dust. "Glasses" were never the ones you wore because of a weak eyesight.

However, nowadays, I see people using "glasses" for all sorts of eyewear whether it's for eyesight (what we used to call "spectacles") or for the sun or wind/dust. I am curious how this change happened. Is it because "spectacles" is UK English and the popularisation of US English led to more usage of "glasses"? Or is it something else. Thanks!

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    In my long lifetime in the UK spectacles and glasses (short for eyeglasses) have always both been in common use, with spectacles sounding a bit more formal. We frequently refer to 'reading glasses'. Dec 11, 2021 at 9:37
  • When I was very little I was fascinated by the mynah bird who was exhibited in a cage outside a local pet shop. Why he saw me, he invariably squawked, in a Cockney accent, 'Got yer glasses on?' Dec 11, 2021 at 10:34
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    I agree with Kate. In my UK childhood, 'glasses' could always be used instead of 'spectacles', but not always vice-versa (e.g. you don't say 'sun-spectacles'.) Dec 11, 2021 at 10:37
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    If you call them 'gig-lamps' you run the risk of being misunderstood, I have found. Dec 11, 2021 at 10:38
  • @MichaelWokeHarvey: I would interpret "gig lamp" as "a lamp that is used in a gig, such as for lighting a stage or similar," but I would not use such a phrase myself because it sounds weird to me.
    – Kevin
    Dec 11, 2021 at 21:54

1 Answer 1

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To my ears, "spectacles" sounds rather dated. "Glasses" would be my preferred term for both corrective and protective eye wear.

Cambridge dictionary marks "spectacles" as old fashioned, and I'm inclined to agree. The casual abbreviation "specs" might be less old fashioned, in casual conversation.

The evidence from ngrams is equivocal, as it is biased by the other meanings of "spectacle" (and "glasses")

Examining "his glasses" (ngrams) to filter other senses suggests that spectacles was more popular than glasses in the 19th century. In the USA "glasses" was slightly more popular in the 20th century, in British English, both terms were roughly equally popular.

In the 21st century there has been a remarkable growth in the use of the term "his glasses", especially in the UK, but also in the USA, though over a longer period of time.

There is little evidence of much difference between US and UK usage. In fact the changes in the relative popularity of "spectacles" and "glasses" on both sides of the Atlantic seems to be correlated. The change from "spectacles" to "glasses" seems to have been one of those erratic shifts in language which occur for no clear reason

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    no clear reason besides spectacles having more syllables, and sounding more posh (= derived from a romantic rather than a germanic root) - the idea being "posh" words being suited less for everyday conversation
    – somebody
    Dec 12, 2021 at 6:57
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    adding a possessor first (e.g. "his spectacles", "his glasses") will eliminate many of the other senses. It lets you see that in the US glasses overtook spectacles around 1905, whilst in the UK the two were similarly common between around 1915 & 1960, with glasses only becoming the more popular then. It makes sense that people would perceive a US/UK difference even if spectacles is no old fashioned today. books.google.com/ngrams/…
    – Tristan
    Dec 12, 2021 at 10:30
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    Having lived on both sides of the pond it's been my observation that you do still hear "spectacles" occasionally in contemporary conversation in the UK. In North America, though, it's almost unheard of.
    – J...
    Dec 12, 2021 at 13:38
  • @Tristan, your google-fu is strong! Do you want to write that up as an answer yourself?
    – James K
    Dec 12, 2021 at 14:27
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    As a Brit, the full word "spectacles" is old-fashioned, but "specs" is perfectly normal. In a similar way, no-one in Britain talks about a "refrigerator" or a "horseless carriage", they talk about a "fridge" and a "car". The abbreviations have become the standard, and using the full name is old-fashioned.
    – Graham
    Dec 13, 2021 at 10:29

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