Saturday, September 21, 2002

Who changed the meaning?


IT is quite difficult to describe and explain semantic change, i.e., change in the meanings of words. However, by looking at a wide range of instances of semantic changes that have taken place, one can develop a certain idea about what can bring about such changes and what kind of semantic changes can occur. A good example would be the ways in which new technology changes word meaning. When technology changes the way everyday affairs are conducted, words acquire new meaning in order to cope with the demand for words to fit new concepts. For instance, the word compute came from the seventeenth century French word, computer, which is made up of com, together, and putare, to settle an account, giving the meaning reckon or calculate. This French word has descended from the Latin computare that means ‘to count’. Computer, a derivative from compute, has spawned a whole new range of words in which the original meaning of ‘to count’ has been supplanted completely by the new meanings associated with computing. Computerise, computer science, computer ethics, computer virus and even compusex; the list can be endless!

Who coins new words?
August 31, 2002
Current trends
August 17, 2002
August 3, 2002
Grandparent languages
July 20, 2002
Thank you computers!
July 6, 2002
Computer-created words
June 22, 2002
Fiddling with words, again!
June 8, 2002
Fiddling with words
May 25, 2002
May 11, 2002
Words in twos
April 27, 2002
April 13, 2002

As computers became common, words took on a whole new range of meaning to accommodate new ideas. ‘Customise commands’ is a phrase that is popularly used today. Custom comes from the Old French coustume, become accustomed. It was used for a widely accepted way of behaving, something done habitually or regular dealings with a business establishment. As an adjective it took on the sense of something made or done to order for an individual, a custom-built car or a custom guitar. The computer fraternity took this meaning further. Customising refers to setting up specialised function keys. Similarly, command etymologically meant an order from an authority, coming as it did from the Latin commandare, com expressing intensive force and mandare meaning commit, order. In the computer world it means giving a signal to the programme by pushing a key or clicking the mouse on the right icon. This one modification in meaning has created related phrases such as command language, good command and command-driven.

Until the computer came along, a mouse was a little rodent. The mouse has now become the big boss of the computer. The small hand-held device that controls the computer can give you mouse-elbow if you use it extensively. An icon, up to the nineteenth century was a painting of Christ or any other holy figure, typically in a traditional style on wood, venerated and used as an aid to prayer. It came from the Greek eikon, meaning likeness or image. Today icon refers to the little symbol or picture on the computer screen that represents a larger application. Perhaps some computer lovers worship icons! Anyhow, this meaning of icon led to the creation of the verb iconify, creating an icon.


In the area of semantics, Hindi shows an interesting feature. Pronouns constantly take on different meanings according to the context and the other words used with them. This gives a whole new range of meaning. For example, consider the meanings of the word kya in ghora kya daura, hava ho gaya! or, hinsak jeev mujhe kya maarega or, tum jaa rahe ho kya? or, kya maloom.

This feature was published on September 14, 2002