Saturday, April 21, 2001

Lost origins

WE take certain words for granted, assume that they will always match the things they signify and meant the same in the past as well. A careful look reveals that many words started life differently, signifying different things to language users in the past. Let’s look at some of these words.

Allegory comes from the Greek allos, meaning other, and agora, meaning gathering place, marketplace. In ancient times, it was customary to do one’s chatting in the marketplace. When people wanted to discuss clandestine topics, they spoke indirectly for fear of getting punished. While mentioning one subject, they would actually be talking about some forbidden topic. Thus while discussing clandestine subjects, they would actually be speaking of ‘other things in the marketplace’. By and by the words joined and came to stand for the act of speaking about one thing while meaning another, leading to the literary category of allegory.

Barbarian, to begin with, had none of the derogatory nuances associated with it today. From the Greek barbaroi, meaning babblers, it simply meant non-Greeks. That is, people who didn’t speak Greek, from the sound that the Greeks thought they were making; ‘bar bar bar…..’

Words and society
March 31, 2001
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

A very simple act at times gives birth to words for all times to come. In ancient Rome, a father would legally claim his newborn child by sitting in front of his family and placing the child on his knee. ‘Placed on the knees’ was the meaning of the Roman genuine, a word which we apply today to many other things other than new-born babies.

That the sport of tennis was first developed by France is a fact quite well known. Less well known is the origin of the word tennis. The word comes from the French tenez which means ‘there you go’, roughly speaking. On hitting the ball, a player would say tenez or there you go, try to get this one. Tennis lost popularity in France and became popular in England around the same time. So, the English were still using the word tenez each time they hit the ball, perhaps at times not even aware of its meaning, eventually it came to be articulated as we know it today, tennis.

If you lived in the Middle Ages, you would decide whether a person was debonair or not by smelling him or her. For, debonair is French for good air and in the Middle Ages, people’s health was judged partly by how they smelled. Anyone who gave off ‘good air’ was presumed healthier and happier.

Quintessential is a much bandied about word today, a perfume is for the quintessential woman, a car is for the quintessential man. Thanks to the advertising world, the word quintessential simply means ‘a perfect representation of a class’. Definitely, through everyday use, the word has been down-scaled. Quintessential is from the medieval Latin where it was quinta essentia or the fifth essence or element. That which was quintessential would come after the four classical elements of earth, fire, water and rain and was said to be the substance of which heavenly bodies were composed, latent in all things but capable of being revealed through alchemy.


Hindi classifies words according to their origins also. An interesting category here is that of dvij words, words which are made up of two words, one from one language and one from another. For instance, railgarhi (English-Hindi), gulabjamun (Hindi-Persian), hukka-paani (Hindi-Arabic) and namak-halal(Persian-Arabic). Language is the essence of democracy; namak-halal, through usage, is a part of Hindi, even though no part of it is Hindi.

— Deepti

This feature was published on April 14, 2001