Saturday, October 12, 2002


TODAY, a pot-pourri can be a mixture of dried petals and spices placed in a bowl or small sack to perfume a room or clothing, it can also refer to a collection of things put together, music or food or books. Originally it meant ‘rotten pot,’ coming as it does from the Spanish ollapodrida. Later, it came to mean a stew of meat and vegetables or, any other mixture, and then it came to acquire its present sense.

Often, events are called tragic, deriving an adjective from the word tragedy. Literally, tragedy means a goat-song, made up, as it is, from the Greek tragos (goat) and oidos (singer). Scholars down the ages have tried to give a plausible explanation for the origin of this goat-song. Today, there are three theories about the beginning of this word. All take shape from the festival of plays put up in honour of the Greek God Dionysus in which there would also be a prize for the best play. At this point, there are three different versions of how goat-song got its name. One, lyrical tragedy began when a Greek playwright dressed up the chorus in goatskins. Two, a goat was the prize awarded to the best play, much like winning a pig or hen at a country fair. Three, a goat was normally sacrificed in the name of Dionysus, the performance coming on the heels of the sacrifice. Hopefully, tragedy should not lose any dignity after this little revelation!

Where did this one come from?
September 28, 2002
Who changed the meaning?
September 14, 2002
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

Confetti, little bits of coloured paper, is often used to give a festive touch to an occasion; air strewn with confetti does look bright. Imagine throwing candy instead of paper! Confetti comes from the Latin confectus, meaning prepared or put together. On carnival days, merrymakers in Italy would have fun pelting each other with little pieces of candy. An enterprising and thrifty shopkeeper made imitation sweets or confetti out of plaster and pasteboard. Later on, little bits of coloured paper took the place of these imitations, leading to today’s confetti.

When stuck for a word beginning with the letter Q in the next game of scrabble, it would be a good idea to turn to words beginning with quin; on the last count one could spot as many as thirtyfive! Quintessential seems to have caught the public eye, the quintessential fashion fabric, the quintessential book of this century, so on and so forth. Modern particle physicists continue to search for the ultimate constituent of matter, similarly medieval alchemists tried to find a fifth primary essence, which together with earth, air, fire and water formed the substance of all heaven and earth. Aristotle called this substance aither or ether. The Greeks called it pempte ousia or, fifth essence. This was translated into Latin as quinta essentia and came to English via French as quintessence. Around the sixteenth century, quintessence came to be used in the metaphorical sense as the most perfect or characteristic embodiment. Of course, thanks to the language user, the adjective quintessential was not far behind!


Hindi has borrowed words from other languages whenever a new object, feeling or conception has come up, demanding the creation of a new word. The original spelling maybe retained or, at times, it maybe modified. From English came motar (motor), rediyo (radio), lat (lord) and paltan (platoon). From Portuguese came tauliya, santara, almari, pistaul, balti and phita.