The word gay is perfect example of this. Mention gay today and nearly everyone will assume you are referring to homosexuality rather than happiness or joy (though for some individuals, the word could mean both simultaneously, but that's another story). In any case, you will have a difficult time convincing people gay once meant happy. When I was a high school teacher, I often had to explain the original definition of gay to a class after the word appeared in some nineteenth-century novel or other we happened to be reading. More often than not, my students simply could not accept that gay merely meant happy in the past and implied no other connotations within the confines of the text. Thus, whenever the word appeared, they instantly assumed some sudden revelation of an author’s or a character’s sexual orientation; my attempts to counter this usually failed, especially when we read Oscar Wilde, but that’s a different matter entirely.
I am one of these strange people who likes etymology. I think about words and their meanings and the historical development of these meanings quite often, especially when it comes to perfectly straightforward words that seem to be on the cusp of meaning transformation, not simply through their ascription to other things, as in the example above, but rather through the transformation of society (though gay could qualify under this category, too). Put another way, some words are becoming increasingly meaningless or lose their original meaning because changes in society no longer reflect the original definition of the word. The verb “to pervert” might be a perfect exemplar. The word continues to exist, but the boundaries of what it defines have blurred; it is often difficult to know in what situations or circumstances perversion can be appropriately applied today.
Ten minutes of extremely hasty and sloppy internet research into the etymology of pervert/perversion revealed the following. Originally from the Latin, the word is combination of per (meaning thoroughly or to an extreme degree) and vertere (to turn). Thus, the original Latin meaning of the word was an extreme or thorough turn. This matches the Proto-Indo-European wert, which means to turn or rotate. The word eventually found its way into French and then migrated to English, but the essential meaning of pervert - an inherently positive, natural, acceptable, or good thing being turned in the wrong direction, or being turned away from, or leading someone away from something considered good and acceptable - has remained intact regardless of which language it called home. As we shall see, what can be perverted tends to change as the perceived good, natural, and acceptable thing changes through history.
I imagine the Romans considered perverted anyone or anything that took an extreme turn away from the core values of fides, pietas, religio, disciplina, gravitas, dignitas, and virtus, known collectively as the mos mairorum, which roughly translates to “ancestral code.” Unlike the written law, the mos mairorum was more of less an unwritten set of principles dictating virtues, behavior, and social practices. Oddly enough, the Romans had no qualms about orgies, slavery, or gladiatorial games, none of which crossed the threshold of perversion in their minds.
When the word was employed in English in the thirteenth century, it was used almost exclusively to delineate the act of turning away or turning someone away from Christianity, which was considered the highest good, reflecting the religiousness of the age. I imagine as the centuries passed, the definition of perversion expanded beyond the realm of religious belief at the same pace Christianity weakened, though this is merely speculation on my part. Whatever the real reason, perversion was slowly applied to any field in which a turning away from a right course or a proper state was observed. Subsequently, everything possessing a proper or good state could, in essence, be perverted – law, justice, language, and yes, even sex. By the time we get to the Victorian Age, it seems the bulk of what was labelled perversion centered on sex, reflecting the rigid, normophilic mores of the time. By the twentieth century I imagine perversion had all but lost its original religious connotations and was used almost exclusively in reference to sex practices (kink, swingers, homosexuality, etc.) that turned away from mainstream sexual behaviors. Otherwise, perversion simply came to mean something similar to distortion or corruption when used in phrases such a perversion of justice.
In our contemporary world, it is becoming increasingly difficult to use the word perversion, be it in noun, verb, or adjective form. Though phrases like perversion of justice still appear now and then, they are growing scarcer as our definition of justice changes and blurs. The infrequency of the word perversion to describe a turning away from the good, the natural, and the acceptable has much to do with the historical development and current state of Western culture, which has all but abandoned Christianity and its definitions of the good, the natural, and the acceptable in favor of a mos maiorum based on the progressive philosophical and political movements of the past two hundred years alone.
Contemporary Western culture has not merely turned away from its ancestral customs, mores, and religion, but is actively, openly, and vehemently hostile to them all. Unlike Ancient Rome, or Medieval Europe, looking to the past for guidance is considered backward and regressive today. Most intellectuals today view the past as a dungeon; historical customs, behaviors, and religion become chains and barbaric torture devices. Progress dictates individuals and societies liberate themselves and others from the shackles of the past oppression and create new values, new principles, and new virtues. An inversion has taken place (note the root vert in the word inversion). The good that once was is no longer believed to be good, but its opposite; accordingly, taking an extreme turn away from or leading people away from these inherently malevolent and evil structures cannot, therefore, be considered perverted acts. Thus, what a mere century ago was considered perverted by the vast majority of society, is today not only considered acceptable, but is actively encouraged and celebrated, which makes using the word perversion today tricky business indeed.
In the end, I believe perversion, both as a word and as a concept, will not lose its meaning. It will survive, and it will survive with its meaning intact. The only thing that has changed and continues to change, is the definition of what constitutes perversion. We live in an era during which the definition of what constitutes the “good, natural, and acceptable” has shifted radically - so much so, that previous notions of "the good, natural, and acceptable" have nearly been forgotten.
In light of this, one does not need to think too hard about possibilities to understand what will or already defines perversion today. The bigger question is how will those who embody the new mos mairorum, this more modern sense of what is good, natural, and acceptable ultimately deal with those who deviate from these new set boundaries.
At the moment, the outlook for those turning away from these newer standards of what is considered good, natural, and acceptable is rather bleak, to say the least.