Old expressions in a new world
- Published: Tuesday, 15 March 2016 16:05
Some time back I received the following email query from ten-year-old Darcy — clearly a budding etymologist:
I want to know that if oct means 8 like octopus, why is October not the eighth month.
It’s an excellent question. The name of the month October (as well as September, November and December) would appear to be wrongly labelled. But their names are a hangover from the ancient Roman calendar, which had only ten months — the beginning of the year was March and this then made October the eighth month. As Darcy figured out, October is based on the classical Latin word for ‘eight’ octo. But when January and February were added (some time during the 8th century B.C), the name persisted despite this new arrangement.
Languages are full of fossilsand digging beneath the surface of expressions in this way can sometimes reveal fascinating fossil traces of outmoded practices and also technologies. And people get very excited by these, if the ongoing flourishing of articles on the internet is any indication. Arika Okrent’s piece, for example, “15 Common Expressions Younger Generations Won't Understand” (http://mentalfloss.com/article/64669/15-common-expressions-younger-generations-wont-understand) lists vintage tech terms that appear to have outlived their meanings, and yet they don’t become obsolete — they hang around. Phones and alarm clocks continue to ring even though they’ve lost their bells; we no longer think of luggage as something that is lugged about (little wheels and convenient handles have changed all that).
The process at work here has been given the rather curious name of “subreption” (from Latin subreptio ‘a snatching away’). The dictionary defines this as a ‘deceptive or fallacious representation’, but in the context of language change it specifically describes the process of external change, whereby objects, ideas and institutions alter (sometimes strikingly) over time, but the names for them remain.
The advent of motorization, for example, has brought with it remarkable changes for words like car, tyre, lorry and truck, and yet there has been no disruption to the terms. The modern-day dashboard (the control panel in the front of cars) is a far cry from the board on coaches to stop drivers getting covered in mud and dung. Taxis and cabs are also very different beasts from the original taximeters (automatic contrivances fitted on vehicles to indicate to passengers the distance traversed and the fare due) and cabriolets (public carriages with two or four wheels, drawn by one horse and seating two or four persons).
But I shouldn’t give the impression that we will always see words extend and adapt their meanings in this way. True, with the arrival of mechanical refrigeration, many continued to use the term icebox (even though the appliance no longer involved a box for ice), but nowadays it’s been well and truly replaced by refrigerator (or more usually fridge).
And if there’s taboo involved, we can always count on a change of expression. Whopping transformations have taken place over the years in ‘the facility for disposing body waste’ and yet the modern flush toilet is not the garderobe or even the more recent close-stool. Quite the contrary, we see spectacular displacement of expressions — within the last couple of centuries latrine > water closet > lavatory > toilet > bathroom / washroom. Such is the way of the ever-grinding euphemistic mill.
But you’ll find many more examples where the world changes with old terms remaining intact. It’s just that the fossil traces may require some excavating if the innovations aren’t recent. The visor on a knight's helmet (the front part covering the face but with openings for seeing and breathing) has simply transformed itself into the shield of the modern-day crash helmet (and in North America even the peak of a cap).
Pictures once used to be painted representations, but now include paintings, drawings and photographs. Indeed, they refer quite generally to any image, however it is produced. The word napkin comes from the original meaning ‘linen cloth’ (think of napery), but now napkins can be made of cotton or paper. We drink from glasses made of plastic and through straws also made of plastic, or paper. Light was once by definition the medium of visual perception. The idea of invisible light was nonsensical, a bit like a triangle with four sides or a round square. These days we have ultraviolet and infrared light and the meaning of light has expanded accordingly.
Some fossils are well and truly concealed in the sediment of linguistic and conceptual changes long-gone. The verb write derives from the Germanic word *writān meaning ‘to scratch, carve’ and goes back to the time when people cut runes into wood or stone. We continue to write — and we do so with a pen (from Latin penna ‘the long wing-feather of a bird’).
Clearly, any changes in the real world (including social and cultural changes) will have repercussions for the lexicon. But these days such is the speed of technological or scientific advancements, that the responses made by the language can be dramatic.
Despite the considerable and rapid developments in telephonics, we continue to dial numbers on our push-button phone and we also hang up — though of course hanging up doesn’t have quite the same satisfaction as slamming down the receiver of a deskphone.
I started with the idea of language as “something of a ruin” (to quote the Dutch linguist van der Tuuk). But let me finish with what I now think is perhaps an even more appropriate image — that of the hoarder:
“A language is like a miserly housekeeper who clings to every dress form, sprung cushion, and moldy piece of luggage, looking for the day when it can be put to use again. But unlike most attic store-rooms, that of language is never a clutter; nearly always a use is found for everything” (Dwight Bolinger Aspects of Language 1975: 418).
Even when uses aren’t found for them, linguistic features can sometimes be pressed into more decorative functions. Almost like the buttons on the cuffs of jackets, the running boards on early cars and the swinging pendulums on contemporary grandfather clocks, obsolete forms can become linguistic ornamentation. But that, as the expression goes, is a whole nother story!
Kate Burridge for Lingofile