Saturday, June 1, 2002

Fiddling with words

LANGUAGE used in books often becomes a topic for discussion and occasionally, some action too is taken. Books termed ‘indecent,’ ranging from Lady Chatterley’s Lover to Aazadi, have always created quite a storm. Even Shakespeare was not spared. In the year 1818, Dr Thomas Bowdler, an editor and publisher, published The Family Shakespeare from which certain portions were omitted. Since then, the word bowdlerize entered the lexicon, for the removal of improper or offensive material from a text. While on the subject, it seems that there are many words that stand for the torture of writers and their works. A particularly strong word is expurgated, which again means the deletion of objectionable matter. It is the origin of the word that can give heartburn to any self-respecting author. Expurgate comes from the Latin expurgare, meaning to cleanse out. This word was used for the cleansing out of excrement. Expunge is also used for such kind of a matter-deletion. Expunge means to erase or remove completely. It comes from the Latin expungere which is made up of ex (out) and pungere (to prick), meaning mark for deletion by means of pricks.

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And the romance goes on...
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Less etymology, more romance
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Random tales"
February 2, 2002
History and meaning
January 19, 2002
Psychiatry and Greek
January 5, 2002
Classic loans
December 22, 2001

The next few words are less offensive things that can be done to books. Abridge refers to the shortening of a book without losing the sense. It takes origin from the old Latin abbreviere (cut short), from which also comes abbreviate. Analects are extracts from works published together as a collection. Analect is from the Greek analektos, meaning gathered together.

Films have made the censor famous. Even books can be censored by an official who examines the book and then suppresses any parts that are considered obscene, politically unacceptable or a threat to security. The origin of this word can be from either of the two sources. First, Freud coined a German word zensur that means an aspect of the self that is said to prevent certain ideas and memories from emerging into consciousness. Second, in ancient Rome censors were magistrates who held censuses and supervised public morals. As a verb, censor can be traced to the Latin censere, meaning assess.

In the everyday world too, words are constantly going through processes of change. Haplology refers to the omission of one occurrence of a sound or syllable that is repeated within the word. For instance, saying Febri instead of February. Haplology comes from the Greek haplos, meaning single. Metathesis is the transposition within a word of letters, sounds, or syllables, as in the change from Old English brid to modern English bird. Or, a common enough case with Indian speakers of English, modren instead of modern.

A malapropism is the mistaken use of a word similar in appearance to the one intended, resulting in a hilarious situation of garbled meaning. In Sheridan’s play The Rivals was a dear old aunt Mrs Malaprop who could never get her words right. She referred to her daughter as a ‘progeny of learning’ and talked of ‘supercilious knowledge’ and ‘contagious countries’. A headstrong person was as ‘headstrong as an allegory (alligator) on the banks of the Nile’. Malaprop comes from the French mal a propos, meaning inappropriate.


The spirit of nationalism acts like a censor in a slightly altered avtaar. At times words that enter the language from foreign languages may be reserved for negative shades whereas there is nothing negative in the original meaning. The Persian ustadi means mastery but Hindi uses it to depict trickery and deception.

This feature was published on May 25, 2002