Saturday, April 7, 2001

Words and society

THERE are many words that owe their existence to customs and practices of the past. With the advent of science and technology or due to changes in lifestyles, some practices fade away, leaving behind trails of words, which enshrine the progress of civilisation. Abacus has come from the Greek abax, which means ‘sand tray’. In earlier times, rows of pebbles were laid out on sand for purposes of counting, so counting came to be permanently associated with pebbles and sand spread out flat. Calculate is connected with the same custom, coming as it does from the Latin calculus, meaning pebble. Threshold is another such word, which owes its existence to an old custom. In the middle ages, houses usually had stone floors, which were very cold in winter and often quite slippery too, due to snowy or rainy weather. In order to keep the floor warm and to prevent accidents, it was covered with threshings from the last harvest. Near the door the threshings would get scattered, so a wooden board was added just within the door to hold the threshings in and it was called the threshold. Strawberry, the Wimbledon delicacy owes its name to a very ordinary farming practice. The word came into being with the layer of straw placed around the plants to keep the fruit off the soil. This was done to keep the fruit from rotting in damp climates.

Origin of expressions
March 17, 2001
Varied origins
March 3, 2001
Words around the house
February 17, 2001
Words around the house
February 3, 2001
Medical terms
January 20, 2001
Painting the town red
January 6, 2001
Expressions from seas
December 23, 2000
Time capsule of words
December 16, 2000
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

Broke, our term for a person with no money, has a colourful history. In post-Renaissance Europe many banks issued small porcelain ‘borrower’s tiles’ to their creditworthy customers. Whenever a person needed to borrow money, the tile had to be presented to the bank teller who would compare the inscribed credit limit with how much the customer had already borrowed. If the borrower had exceeded the limit, the teller ‘broke’ the tile on the spot, declaring the person ‘broke’.

When a person complains of feeling groggy, British sailors are far from the imagination, whereas this word comes from their lives. In the seventeenth and eighteenth century, British sailors would often drink a mixture of rum and water to relieve the monotony of a long sea-voyage. How this mixture came to be called grog and the sailors groggy; therein lies an interesting tale. Grog took its name from the nickname of ‘Old Grog’ given to the British Admiral Vernon by his sailors due to the heavy coat of grogram (a coarse weatherproof fabric) that he always wore. In 1740, Admiral Vernon issued an order that the rations of rum should be heavily diluted with water to prevent drunken behaviour on board. Naturally, this did not go down well with the sailors who derisively started calling their rations of rum ‘grog’ to get even with him.


Sometimes, instead of leaving custom and practice behind, words carry on the little bits of culture attached to them. The meaning of a word is conditioned by the culture of the language user. This additional factor of cultural connotation complicates matters for the language learner because individuals understand the meanings of words according to their experience and cultural conceptions. For example, dipavali means a line of lamps but ask any Indian the meaning and the answer will be the Divali festival. Hukka-pani refers to the act of smoking a pipe and drinking water, yet when it is articulated the word evokes the response ‘social ostracisation’.

— Deepti

This feature was published on March 31, 2001