Saturday, December 16, 2000

Time capsule
of words

MAN has tried to buy immortality in many ways. The time-capsule is one of them. What could be better than placing some reminders of a civilisation in a sturdy cell buried in the earth for future civilisations to find? Language is a ready-made time-capsule in itself as it preserves faithfully the culture and customs of man. The word shibboleth is an apt illustration of this feature of language. Events in history took such a turn that shibboleth, which means stream in Hebrew became ‘a catchword or a slogan’. According to the Bible, the Gileadites used it as a password, for they knew that their enemies — the Ephraimites — could not pronounce the ‘sh’ sound properly. Saying sibboleth instead of shibboleth, the Emphraimites failed the test and were slain. In the recent past, history repeated itself when the American army faced the problem of Japanese infiltration in Philippines. An American officer, remembering that the Japanese couldn’t pronounce the letter ‘l’ very well, hit upon the idea of having a password with the letter ‘l’ in it. On January 20,1942, lallapaloosa was used as the password and the sentries fired upon anyone who said ‘rarraparoosa’. In the seventeenth century English, shibboleth came to be applied to any word used as a test of pronunciation, particularly as a sign of belonging to a group. By extension it came to mean any catchword or slogan adopted by a group. Today, a shibboleth is an outmoded slogan or practice still adhered to.

New words
December 2,2000
Words from myths
November 11,2000
The Olympics
October 14,2000
More metaphors
September 30, 2000
Metaphorical colour
September 16, 2000
Broader vistas
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

How did a word which means a fragment of pottery give birth to ostracise, or ‘banish from society’? Ostracise comes from the Greek ostrakon, meaning a shell or a broken piece of pottery. In ancient Greece, a custom was followed to decide about one’s exclusion from society. According to this custom, each voter took an ostrakon and wrote on it the name of the citizen he wished to remove from the city. These ostrakons were then collected in one place where the chief magistrates counted the total number of ostrakons cast. The man whose name appeared on the maximum number of ostraka was banished for 10 years. In all fairness, if the voters were less than a specified number, the ostracism was considered null and void. Today, ostracism is a social rather than a political act, the method implicit in the word is no longer used, but the purpose and result remain the same.

A philippic is a fierce denunciation, usually verbal, so fierce that it is hurled rather than uttered. The word philippic comes from the Greek philippos which means a horse-lover. So, when and how did a word with love in it become a term of aggression? In the fourth century BC, Demosthenes of Athens denounced the political ambitions of King Philip of Macedonia in a series of heated speeches. His fiery invectives were called philippics. Later, Cicero gave the name philippics to a set of speeches he wrote against Mark Antony.

Sycophants are, etymologically speaking, fig-showers and not servile flatterers. In ancient Athens, the exportation of figs was forbidden and the one who showed up or pointed out such exporters was called a syco, meaning fig; phant, meaning shower. So, originally an informer or defamer, sycophant took on the meaning of servile self-seeker or a base flatterer.


In Hindi there are words which are often incompatible with the times. An analysis of the past explains such disparities. Prahara, a single stroke of an attack, comes from the strokes of the clock, when time was marked by giving strokes or praharas.


This feature was published on December 9, 2000