Saturday, October 26, 2002

Multiple facts

FREE was used as the second element in a hyphenated adjective to show that something did not include a particular element; we are all familiar with tax-free, toll-free and duty-free. This led to the figurative sense of ‘not hampered by whatever has been named in the first word.’ Once this sense was established, it was but a small jump to the present multi-faceted use of ‘free’ as a second element. Modern living has added a number of first elements to give a list of new words. Ingredients or processes that were formerly thought desirable are today thought undesirable in certain products, giving rise to a whole new vocabulary. These words are used to make certain products acceptable to the consumer, who looks for healthy living. So, there is milk-free, sugar-free, gluten-free and wheat-free. Then, there are words created for special diets, words like alcohol-free, cholesterol-free, salt-free, meat-free and dairy-free. A word of caution, though: A recent advertisement promised a good cooking oil that highlighted the offering ‘cholesterol free’! Miss out the hyphen and there is a complete turnaround in meaning. An undesirable activity or process demands declarations like animal-free and cruelty-free; especially when cosmetics are involved. Foodstuffs are often labelled additive-free, preservative-free or colour-free. Similarly electrical gadgets are CFC-free.

October 12, 2002
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

Friendly is another such element that is often used as the second element in a hyphenated adjective. The figurative sense is responsible here as well for this usage. Friendly being the opposite of hostile easily took on the sense of ‘adapted, designed or made suitable for the person or thing in the first element of the word or, safe for that first element.’ User-friendly, the term from the world of computers spawned many similar words. In the late seventies, user-friendly came into being as a purely technical term to describe systems that were geared to the needs of a non-specialist. Within a few years, it became so successful in summing up the whole concept of accessibility to the ordinary person that it was adopted by a variety of other contexts outside the world of computers. Products became reader-friendly, listener-friendly or consumer-friendly. Legislation appeared in simple language to qualify for the description of being citizen-friendly. Interest in ecology and in the environment gave birth to environment-friendly, earth-friendly and planet-friendly. A further dimension was added with the word greenhouse-friendly, in which the basic meaning ‘not harmful to’ had been extended to ‘not contributing to the harmful effects of’; creating a potential for further new words. And, promptly enough, ozone-friendly was born.

How could unfriendly be far behind in all this hectic activity? In order to create words opposite in meaning to the ones above, along came user-unfriendly, environment-unfriendly and ozone-unfriendly.


When a word is taken by another language as loanword, new shades of meaning are added on according to the new contexts. Vinay, from Sanskrit, is one such word. In Sanskrit, vinay meant self-control or ideal behaviour. So much so that the Ramayana, Mahabharata, Dharmshastra, Nitishastra and the Buddhist texts use vinay as a synonym for vidya, knowledge; since education and knowledge teach self-control and ideal behaviour. After reaching the Hindi lexicon, vinay came to mean namrata or sweetness of disposition; henceforth, Sanskrit too added this meaning to vinay.