THE ROMANCE OF WORDS

 

Prof. K. VISWANATHAM

 

            Disraeli once said “with words we govern men.” We think we use language. The truth is language uses us. The great poets are, of course, lords of language. Rsinaam punah adyaanaam vaacam arthah anudhaavati. We are all unthinking slaves of language. Do mathematicians guess that Trigonometrical Sine is from Aryabhatta’s Jiva? How many educationists know that university has nothing to do with universality of subjects? Do we know that chancellor is connected with the dreadful disease cancer? Do scientists ever think that scientist is philologically unjustifiable? Do Nuclear physicists guess that cyclotron is a wrong formation? In the study of language the most fascinating is semasiology. It deals with changes in the meanings of words. Meanings do not stay put. Shift in meaning occurs because language is incomplete and inaccurate. The word Sun means the shining one but shining does not exhaust the sun and when the sun sets, it does not shine. There is no inherent connection between the referend and the symbol, that is, the animal dog and the group of sounds d-o-g. In Semantics Brahmins become pariahs and vice versa. Some words like imperialists colonize wide territories and some shrink like Have-nots. Some ruin from heaven and some “arrive” the happy isle. Wanderings among words or of words are a happy itinerary. It is not change as such as the process of change that is of absorbing interest and graphs the working of the human mind.

 

            The word Silly was always applied to saints and meant blessed. Then it meant simple, then simple-minded and next foolish. In anger we call another dunce or idiot. But dunce is from the name of one of the greatest Schoolmen of the Middle Ages and idiot meant a private person and is connected with idiom which differs from grammar. The word Street from strata via means paved and the main word via meaning way has disappeared. In Mile from milia passuum, passu meaning paces is the main word and mile means thousand as in millipde, thousand-legged. Our town comes from O. E. tun, an enclosure: a modern town is a congestion of enclosures, Harbour from “here beorg” is a place where a raiding army “here” disembarked. That is why harbour as a verb is used in a bad sense. We harbour criminals, not good thoughts. Harold, herald, harry, harbinger come from the same word. The airport is so called because the airships navigate the skies and come to the port. The word Beach is connected with breach, i. e., the place where the waves break. There is the Hospital. Hostel, hospital, hotel are all from the same root “hospes” related to hostis which give us host meaning army, host meaning an entertainer of guests and guest also and hospitality. That is why perhaps some hotels are like hospitals and some hospitals are like hotels. And the hostel mess is always a mess, being the same word. Strictly speaking an M. B. B. S. should not call himself a doctor. In medieval times a scholar authorized to teach the Church doctrine was called a doctor. In later times the doctorate became formal or honorary and was rarely assumed except by the faculty of medicine. From the root “docere” we get doctor, doctrine, document, docile meaning teachable. Surgeon and Cheiromaneer come from the same root Cheiro meaning hand. University is not a place where all subjects under the sun are taught. The word is from universitas meaning a corporation or guild formed for security by scholars coming together from various parts of the country. How many suspect that Chancellor and the dreadful disease cancer come from the same root! The legal, medical, astronomical, commercial, ecclesiastical, political references are amazing. Cancer, meaning crab, is the fourth sign in the zodiac. Cancer or canker creates sores resembling the claws of the crab. Hence the verb cancel making criss-cross lines (which teachers liberally use in others’ scripts). The latticed railings of law courts are called cancelli and the usher stationed there names cancellarius became a respectable official, Chancellor. Chancellories and chancel of a church are from the same root. A Syndic means an advocate.

 

            The pen used by the student means feather because birds’ feathers provided quills used as writing implements. Write meant to scratch because in primitive times persons used a pointed instrument to scratch letters on the bark of trees or a piece of wood. From the instrument stilus we get the word style. Read meant to guess as in “read the riddle” because very few could read in olden times. Grammar, the headache of students and teachers, was earlier gramarye or magic which it is even today to most persons. The word Syllabus was a misreading of the Greek sittuba. Pencil means brush. The root gives us Penicillin so named because of the mould resembling tufts of hair. Penciled eyebrows are bushy eyebrows. A book has reference to the bark of the beech tree just as paper is from papyrus. The Bible means the book made from bark. Library and taper are from the same source. The Fee paid by the student at the beginning of the term is from O. E. feoh which goes back to pecu and pasu. In ancient times a person’s wealth was assessed by the number of cattle he owned. The Greek Polybios means many oxen and Siva is Pasupati, lord of cattle wealth. Capital needed by business is from the same source leading to the incorrect expression of economists per capita income; capital is from caput meaning head. Today if you want to pay the fee you cannot go to the Principal’s office with a pair of oxen. The bank where you have an account means a bench and a cheque is a variant of check; you can check it easily and hence the name. Banquet and bankrupt are connected with the same word. The semester system which rouses a hornet’s nest is from sex mensis, meaning six months. The word school meant a place of leisure; it means its opposite today. In Greek times war and politics were the main occupations of a person; books were studied at leisure. Examine means etymologically to weigh. A teacher who follows the etymology should be a champion weight-lifter. The semantic history of Sine is as exciting as Round the World in eighty days. The idea expressed by sine was developed by Aryabhatta. He named it Jiva, the string of a bow. The Arabs borrowed it and wrote it as Jiba and their custom of omitting vowels reduced it to job. At Toledo in the 12th century a Spanish scholar Gherado, a translator of the Arabic versions of Aristotle’s works and Euclid’s Elements, was puzzled by jb in a Ms on trigonometry; jb suggested to him jaib, the Arabic word for the curve of a woman’s breast, and he translated it into Latin as sinus which means bosom. If students of maths know that sine means the curve of a woman’s breast they may hug it more closely to their bosoms. Calculus a branch of higher mathematics means a pebble because the primitive man counted with pebbles. Hand and Five have the same word in most languages as man counted on the fingers of the hand, Pani, and the word Ten is ultimately from daktulos meaning finger and giving deka, dasa. A chemist mean a black man. Chemistry developed from alchemy; al is the Arabic article found in alkali, alcohol and Kemi is the ancient name of Egypt called the black country as it was covered by the rich black soil of the Nile; alchemy was practised there. Of course, you should not call a chemist a black man.

 

            That is one of the risks of etymology. It is etymological fallacy to think that etymological meaning alone is pure. Dilapidated implying stone cannot then be used to a ruined hut and a monthly journal is a contradiction in terms as journal refers to a day. Usage is more than etymology as idiom is more than grammar. Is the word scientist philologically correct? Just as we have botanist from botany, it can be sciencist. From dig we have digger. So can it be sciencer? Educational gives us educationalist; sciential can give us scientialist. A leading English journal uses man of science instead of scientist. Though Prof. Whewell coined it in 1840, some one calls it a transatlantic hybrid. Shall the word be scientist, sciencer, scientialist or scientist? A piece of machinery in atomic research is called cyclotron. Its root is kuklos which gives us bicycle, wheel, Chakra. Cyclon should be the word. But the ‘r’ of neutron and the ‘t’ of neutron and positron established themselves in the physicist’s etymology so that cylcon became wrongly cyclotron. Dealing with things nuclear we think of Bikini, an atoll in the Pacific on which an atomic explosion was arranged in 1946; it means a type of scanty woman’s bathing suit. Even scholars like Sheard and Moore were puzzled by this. The explanation seems to be that the sight of a shapely young woman clad in this costume sets off perhaps in the male spectators an emotional reaction equal in force to the atomic explosion at Bikini and out of this arose monokini topless bathing suit, a fine specimen of popular etymology.

 

            The word helicopter is wrongly split into heli-copter and new words like helipod are coined; actually it is helicostpter meaning screw wing. Unpredictable are the fortunes of even twins in vocabulary. Knave and Kinght mean a boy. The first has sunk low and the second one is the very height of idealism. Knave is a boy employed in kitchens and became a byword for dishonesty. Knight derived from cniht zooms into the empyrean as in Chaucer’s–He was a parfit gentil knight. In German the word means servile. A husband need not have a wife and a wife means merely woman as in housewife, fishwife; husband means one who looks after the house, just as lord means the guardian of the loaf: guardian and warden are one and the same. Girl and harlot meant a person of either sex. Liquor meant liquid only and the mail in which we travel means a bag as it carries postal bags. Meat meant merely food as in one man’s meat is another’s poison and potion is a variant of poison. Brunch is breakfast, lunch; smog is smoke and fog. Health and wealth are synonyms as time and tide are, though now differentiated. Sorry and Sorrow have nothing to do with each other. Policy in insurance policy is different from policy in foreign policy. Master is higher than minister etymologically.

 

            Bridegroom is not related to a groom and titmouse is a bird. Virtue etymologically means masculinity or virility though it connotes chastity in a woman. Oxford means ford for oxen and Cambridge is not a bridge over the Cam as many suppose. Kennedy means ugly head and Johnson, the son of John. Penguin is white head. Cabal is not an acrostic formed from the initials of the five ministers of Charles II. Salary means a cake of salt later commuted to money and money is from the temple of Juno Moneta the admonisher where money was coined; mint is a mutated form of Moneta. A nickname is an eke or additional name. Kerchief means a piece of cloth to cover the head. Thrall and thrill are from the same word meaning to pierce; slaves’ ears were pierced as a sign of slavery; piercing titillates you; hence thrill. Though a shirt runs after a skirt, they are one and the same word; boys and girls look alike in dress today as if illustrating the etymology. We have polysemy, generalization, narrowing. amelioration, deterioration. Polysemy or radiation or multiplication means from a single root various meanings arise. From the root biernan meaning burn we get brandy burning liquid, brand a mark burnt into, then quality and then the place of origin, burnt the burning part of the battle, brindled sub-burnt, brand a rod of metal taken hot from the fire. Paper from papyrus illustrates generalization; it means paper from any other material, a document, an article, or essay or dissertation, daily newspaper, a set of questions in an examination.

 

            The word Romance is from the Eternal city, then a story from one of the romance languages derived from Latin especially French, then a story of adventure with love element, hence a love story, a real love story, next an absorbing interest, any fictitious story. Junk was originally sailor’s rope and is now widened into any useless stuff. Starve which meant to die meant to die of starvation–a grim reflection on the hardships of our ancestors; it illustrates narrowing. Democracy now a term of praise but described by Byron as the aristocracy of blackguards is an example of amelioration. Deterioration is commoner and is a sad commentary on human nature. Villain, a servant attached to a villa, now means a scoundrel. The study of a single word in detail gives an x-ray photo of the workings of the human mind Horn means one of a pair of projections on the heads of oxen, etc., then one used as a musical instrument, next a musical instrument made of any other material, also any kind of noise-producing instrument like the one in a motor-car, a person who plays a wind instrument, projections on the heads of insects or birds as in the snails’ horns, a drinking vessel, name of the material that animals’ horns are made of, horns of a bow, of the moon, of a dilemma, etc.

 

            Words may fix your social status. If you have a bath you are U; if you take a bath you are non-U or vulgar. We can only wonder at this richness, roominess, riches of words. A cat has nine lives; a word has, perhaps, ninety lives. Our wonder is expressed by the mark of exclamation! Can you guess its origin? The Latin word for admiration is I O and this was written I with O underneath it and in course of time O was reduced to a dot underneath the vertical stroke and we get the exclamation mark !

 

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