Saturday, September 15, 2001


A friend was puzzled. What was the meaning of tabula rasa? The son’s teacher used the word for the child’s mind. Tabula rasa is one of the many foreign expressions that have taken English citizenship. In Latin it literally means a scraped table. It denotes a writing surface from which previously written words have been removed, so that it is blank and can be written on again. John Locke, a philosopher, used it metaphorically to denote a clean slate. He used it as a psychological term to signify the newborn child’s mind which is blank before it receives any impressions.

Did you know that the word wanderlust has also been borrowed from a foreign language? Originally a German word, English borrowed it in the beginning of the twentieth century. Due to an orthographical overlap with the English wander and lust, the pronunciation became completely anglicised. A further sign of the naturalisation of this citizen is the formation of words derived from wanderlust — wanderluster and wanderlusting.

Foreigners, come to stay
September 1, 2001

Word clusters
August 18, 2001

In the same vein
August 4, 2001
The cyber family
July 21, 2001
Italian friends
July 7, 2001
Random words
June 23, 2001
Mortal practices, immortal words
June 9, 2001
Passage of words
May 26, 2001
Traces of the past
May 12, 2001
April 28, 2001
Lost origins
April 14, 2001
Words and society
March 31, 2001
Origin of expressions
March 17, 2001
Varied origins
March 3, 2001

Tête-à-tête is another such naturalised citizen that came from France to settle in England. At first, in the sixteenth century, it was used in the same sense as head-to-head in English, to denote single combat, one-on-one. By the seventeenth century it had come to mean an intimate or private conversation between two persons, metaphorically with their heads together. English borrowed it in this sense at the end of the seventeenth century. Today, it is used as both an adjective and an adverb as in a tête-à-tête supper and dining tête-à-tête.

The French soiree, once taken to be a pretentious word, is back in news. Derived from soir, evening, it denotes an entertainment held in the evening, typically a small private party at someone’s home or elsewhere. Occasionally, the French soiree dansante is also used for an evening party with dancing.

Soigne came from French in the early nineteenth century and is used to mean sophisticated elegance, particularly with regard to a person’s grooming — not a hair out of place, not a speck of dust on the collar. The niceties of French gender are preserved, so that an immaculately turned-out woman is soignée. In French, soigné also means first rate, excellent.

Summum bonum has caught the fancy of political scientists lately, let’s wait and watch for the politician to latch onto it. For centuries, philosophers have differed in their identification of the summum bonum: the attainment of virtue, happiness or the greatest happiness of the greatest number of people? In the general sense, it means the most desirable goal. The Roman author Cicero coined this Latin word which means, literally, highest good. On the same Latin model are summum jus, highest law, and summum pulchrum, highest beauty.


A progressive language is identified by the way in which it continues to prune its words. Just as a gardener keeps the garden trim and well-maintained and a person remains soigné by paying attention to details, the user keeps language fit and in form by constantly defining and restricting word meanings. Atma, for example, means body, being, nature and God in Sanskrit but Hindi holds onto soul as the meaning of atma.