Saturday, September 2, 2000

August 19, 2000
August 5, 2000
Partial twins
July 22, 2000
Language growth
July 8, 2000
June 24, 2000
The law and Latin
June 10, 2000
Vague words
May 27, 2000
Words from war
May 13, 2000

Broader vistas

"HAS this X-ray been reported", asked the doctor. I looked around, perplexed, thinking that he must be talking to a lawyer or a policeman involved in a medico-legal case. He repeated his question patiently, wondering why an educated-looking person could not understand a simple query. Then I realised that the question was addressed to me and asked for a clarification, "Do you mean the X-ray report, doctor?" He gave me a queer look and said: "Has a radiologist seen this X-ray and given the report?"

The moment Ireached home, I rushed to the dictionary. Yes, there it was in the year 2000 edition of The Oxford Dictionary: reported, verb, to give a spoken or written account of something observed, heard, done or investigated by one; a minister, teacher, policeman or newspaper can report. No mention of a radiologist or a doctor reporting. But, I had heard highly-educated, qualified professionals using report as a verb. The next dictionary entry made the usage crystal-clear: report, noun, an account given of a particular matter, especially in the form of an official document, after thorough investigation or consideration by an appointed person or body. Earlier, the question would have been ‘has a radiologist seen the X-ray and given the report?’ This is how words broaden in meaning. The need to be brief, save time and also to elicit the right information gave birth to another sense of report. This also explains the recent addition of a ‘reporting room’ in most radiology departments, a room in which radiologists sit and report their findings.

The word spleen has been around but has not been in frequent use. Recent political events have put the ‘venting of spleen’ bang in the headlines of the national newspapers. Spleen has an intriguing background. Medieval medicine attributed the various types of human temperament to the different body fluids. Thus, a preponderance of blood would make a person sanguine, excess of phlegm would make him phlegmatic, too much of choler would make him choleric, while excess of black bile would make him melancholic. Spleen, an organ connected with the formation of antibodies was the supposed seat of the passions; ill-nature, spite, lowness of spirits and bad temper were all its doings. Vent comes from the Latin exventare ‘let out air’ via Old French esventer. Today, vent is used for anything let out forcefully.


No celebrity interview is complete without the question: How do you deal with stress? The word stress comes from the Old French etresse ‘narrowness, oppression’, based on the Latin strictus, ‘drawn tight’. There is also a connection with the 14th century distress, the experience of physical hardship, starvation, torture and pain. It also meant causing hardship. During the 15th century, the word became almost a synonym for weight, both physical and metaphorical. In the 19th century, mechanical engineers redefined the word as a technical term, meaning the pressure on an object as opposed to strain, which meant the deformation experienced by an object under stress. If this usage had been carried on, we would be saying: ‘She’s had a lot of stress, so she’s off due to strain’.


Words that enter Hindi from other languages gain in meaning at times. The Arabic lihaaf was used for a thick quilt. But in Hindi it is applied to any kind of covering for a sleeping person.

— Deepti