You’re reading an article about Chiang Kai-shek in Wikipedia, and you come to this subhead:
Contemporary public perception
What does it mean?
To an old-school scholar, “contemporary” always carries the meaning of “existing at the same time.” Chiang was contemporary with Mao, with Eisenhower, and so on.
To many casual readers, “contemporary” means “in the current moment.” And that’s what it means here: this section of the article is talking about what people think of Chiang now, not what they thought of him in his own time.
Thus the word “contemporary” no longer conveys an unambiguous meaning. Just by reading that subhead, we can’t tell whether that section of the article is going to talk about the public perception of Chiang in his lifetime or the public perception of him right now.
When a word no longer does its job, we have to give it up, however reluctantly. We should reword that subhead this way:
Public perception today
On the other hand, if we wanted to write about how people saw Chiang when he was alive, we could say this:
How Chiang was perceived in his lifetime
There are certain limited uses of “contemporary” that we probably don’t have to abandon. People will still understand “contemporaries” as a plural noun in the right context: “Chiang and his contemporaries.” Art critics may be able to talk about “contemporary art,” as long as they understand each other. (The Editor takes it as given that art critics do not write to be understood by the general public.) “Contemporary” may still mean something in real estate or furniture; the Editor suspects it means “a style that was popular in the 1960s.” As a general term, however, “contemporary” is broken, and we have to throw it away.