|Saturday, April 7, 2001||
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.
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’.