Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Semantic Change

(excerpted from my book How Happy Became Homosexual and other mysterious semantic shifts.)

The Times (& Meanings of Words) are A- Changin


Howard Richler

Although in the Middle Ages it is unlikely that gold fetched over $1500 an ounce, we still should pity the Middle Ages alchemists who futilely endeavoured to turn lead into gold. For all they had to perform such a metamorphosis was to create a simple series of synonym chains. Let me explain how this black art can be completed. For example to turn black into white we follow the following steps: Black-dark-obscure-hidden-concealed-snug-pleasant-easy-simple-pure-White Macbeth's witches must have been on to something when they realized that fair is foul and foul is fair because in the same manner ugly transmogrifies into beautiful: Ugly-offensive-insulting-insolent-proud-lordly-majestic-grand-gorgeous-Beautiful. This legerdemain doesn't appear as impressive when we reveal that the word pretty originally meant cunning and that came to mean beautiful through these set of stages: Pretty-cunning-clever-fine-nice-Beautiful. In fact, we can empirically “prove” the veracity of postmodern theory by showing how true is indeeed false: True-just-fair-beautiful-pretty-artful-artificial-fake-False.

In fact, many words have undergone changes in meaning that allow us to trace a similar process. For example, the word “nice” originally meant “foolish” or “stupid” in the 14th century. Since then it has gone through the following progression in meaning:nice- loose-mannered-foolish-wanton-lazy-effeminate-tender-delicate-shy-refined-fine-agreeable-kind- pleasant. The word “shrewd” originally meant “foolish” and went through this semantic transformation: shrewd-depraved-wicked-naughty-abusive-calculating-artful-cunning-wise. “Sad” went through this metamorphosis: sad-satiated-settled-mature-serious-unhappy. Also, “gay” went through a transformative process from its original sense of “happy” to today's prevalent sense of “homosexual.”

It can even be explained how the same word can evolve contradictory meanings. For example with the word “fast” we start off with a sense of “immovable” or “firm” as in “standing fast.” From the sense of “standing fast” we developed the concept of “running fast” and hence the rapid sense of the word. Similarly “fine” originally denoted

something “slender” and this led to a sense of “highly finished” that in turn led to a

sense of “beautiful.” In situations where large growth is appreciated, this allows “fine” to be seen as “large” notwithstanding that the word started its life as “slender.”

In his book The Broadcast Word (1935) Welsh linguist Arthur Lloyd James wrote: “A language is always changing: we are not looking at a lantern-slide, but at a moving picture.”To demonstrate the turbulence in word meanings I have concocted the following alphabetically-arranged über short story which I have entitled The Admiral and the Juggler:

(The italicized words represent the original meaning of the word).

“The admiral (emir), while visiting Bedlam (Bethlehem) captivated (captured) a divan (council of state in Turkey) and entreated (treated) the fickle (treacherous) grub (short person) to a spectacle by an honest (comely) impudent (immodest) juggler (jester and musician). The juggler while but a knave (boy), was able to make lingerie (linen items) disappear and meat (food) appear out of thin air. He then had the emir's niece (granddaughter) occult (hidden) as a prank (malicious trick) and the bereft admiral thinking his niece had been quelled (killed) was about to order a raid ( military foray made on horseback) to make a sample (example) of the juggler's perfidy, however the knave had no talent (inclination) to challenge the admiral and ended his uncouth (malicious) performance and had the virgin (unmarried girl) re-appear. The mollified admiral advised the lad in future to be witty (sensible) and the relieved performer, with a yawn, (open mouth) devoured some zest (orange peel).

Apparently, there is no word in English beginning with an “x” that has changed its meaning significantly. Even “xenophobic” Madame Marois

This article is excerpted from Richler's latest book How Happy Became Homosexual and other mysterious semantic shifts


Our Sanskrit Legacy

(this article appeared recently in the legal magazine Lexpert).
The Hindi/Sanskrit legacy to our language


Howard Richler

November 3rd this year marks the onset of the five day Hindu “festival of lights” called Diwali. For Hindus, Diwali is one of the most important festivals of the year and is celebrated in families by performing traditional activities together in their homes. Diwali is an official holiday in India and ten other countries.

The most common language among Hindus is Hindi and it is the fourth most common first language spoken, only surpassed by Mandarin, Spanish and English. Hindi has also supplied many words to the English language, some whose exotic etymology will surprise you.

Take thug. It derives from the Hindi thag “cheat,” “swindler” and its first definition in the OED makes it sound like a ghoulish tax-deductible organization: “Association of professional robbers and murderers in India who strangled their victims.” The actual name of this fraternal order was P’hanisigars, “noose operators,” and the British euphemistically bequeathed them the name Thugs, from the Sanskrit word sthaga meaning “cheater” which dated back to at least the 13th century. These Thugs were said to be honouring the Hindu goddess of destruction Kali through their mayhem. The British eliminated the Thugs in the 1830s, when they hanged over 500 of them and sentenced close to 3000 to life imprisonment.

The word “juggernaut” is now employed metaphorically to refer to a “crushing force” but originally the “crush” was literal. In Hinduism, Jagganath, is a title of the god Krishna. The OED states that “the..idol of this deity at Puri (in India) (is) annually dragged in procession on an enormous car, under the wheels of which many devotees are said to have formerly thrown themselves to be crushed.”Jungle” was originally rendered in Hindi as jangal and meant “desert” or “waste.” The same metamorphosis in meaning has occurred with the word “forest” which also referred to an unenclosed tract or waste before taking on the sense of area covered with wood.

If you massage your scalp when you give yourself a “shampoo,” you are performing the proper etymological activity. Shampoo comes from the Hindi word campo, the imperative of campna “to press.” The first sense recorded in the OED is “to subject (a person, his limbs) to massage.” The first citation in 1762 from a travel journal reflects this hands on activity: “Had I not seen several China merchants shampooed before me, I should have been apprehensive of danger.” The common sense of shampoo to refer to the washing of hair emerges in the mid 19th century.

Ultimately, Hindi derives from Sanskrit. For almost two millennia, Sanskrit has been maintained as the literary language of the priestly and learned castes in India and it retains this position in the 21st century. The western world’s Sanskrit legacy is apparent in many kinship words. The Sanskrit word for “father” is pitr, very similar to the Greek and Latin pater; “mother” in Sanskrit is matr, almost identical to Latin mater. Sanskrit bhratr became Old English brodor, German, Swedish and Danish broder and modern English “brother.” Svasa in Sanskrit bequeathed us the Old English sweoster, the German schwester and the modern English “sister.” Sanskrit has also bequeathed the western world many of its numbers. For example, the number “two” in Sanskrit was rendered as dwau which became the Old English twa and “three” was rendered in Sanskrit as trayas and bequeathed our number as well as the Norwegian, Swedish and Danish tre and the Dutch drie. The number “four” in Sanskrit is rendered as catvar, quite similar to the Latin quattuor and the French quatre.

Sanskrit has literally sweetened our language. The troops of Alexander the Great enjoyed a Persian delicacy which was composed of a sweet reed garnished with honey, spices and colouring. This Persian treat was called kand and this word derived from the old Arabic word for sugar, quand. Ultimately, candy comes from the Sanskrit khanda, “piece of something,” or “sugar in crystalline pieces.”

On the other hand, Sanskrit is ultimately responsible for “swastika.” This is a word for an ancient good-luck symbol , deriving from the Sanskrit svastí, “well-being, fortune, luck.” This word is a blend of su,”good,” and asti, “being.” The first definition in the OED is “a primitive symbol or ornament of the form of a cross with equal arms with a limb of the same length projecting at right angles from the end of each arm, all in the same direction and (usually) clockwise.” This symbol was adopted by the Nazi Party and in German was referred to as the Hakenkreuz. A 1932 citation states that “Thousands flocked to his standard the ‘Hakenkreuz’ (swastika), the ancient anti-semitic cross in a color scheme of red-white-black in memory of the colors of the old army.” It is the karma of Sanskrit to have provided us both the sweetness of “candy” and the bitterness of “swastika.”

A happy Diwali to all.

Howard Richler's book How Happy Became Homosexual and other mysterious semantic shifts was published in May 2013.