Saturday, December 7, 2002

Fashion statements

WORDS are sometimes used as garments, to signal that the user is ‘with it’, ie, knows what is in vogue and how to make use of it. At times, this fashion statement creates just the right effect but sometimes these words become superfluous accessories that detract from the effect instead of enhancing it. The word basically is one such accessory that is used quite carelessly. Basically comes from base, derived from the Latin basis — meaning pedestal. The literal meaning of a supporting structure went on to create the sense of a main or important element of a whole and gave birth to many words like base camp, baseless and basic. Basically emerged as an adverb that meant fundamentally or, in the most essential respects. Today, some language users begin every sentence with basically; ‘basically, I get up early,’ or ‘basically, the food was good,’ so on and so forth, turning an effective adverb into a well-worn hair clip or cap.

For those in the area of social work, empower is the key word today. Empower comes from power, that can be traced to the Latin posse, meaning ‘be able’. Power gave the verb empower that meant ‘give someone the authority or power to do something’; in the seventeenth century the Church and the Crown would empower people to raise an army or open a school. Later, it was used less specifically when leaders began to empower their followers with inspiring speeches. In the 1970s, with the onset of radical feminism, empower took on the sense of making someone strong enough to claim their rights and when it came to be used for any section of society it no longer meant the gain of power, it meant the loss of the feeling of powerlessness.

Spreading wings
November 23, 2002
Borrowed words
November 9, 2002
Multiple facts
October 26, 2002
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

The word consult comes from the Latin consulere, which means ‘take counsel’. This led to the noun consultant. Originally, consultants were medical men, as senior doctors have been known as consultants since the late nineteenth century. Earlier, they were called consultant physicians; today, in the era of specialisation they are called consultant surgeons, consultant psychiatrists and so on. At present, any independent practitioner who is consulted by a number of clients is a consultant; hence, there are finance consultants, investment consultants and even wedding consultants!

A snippet from a telephone chat: ‘Have you completed your work?’ ‘No, I haven’t.’ ‘Brilliant!’ The dictionary says brilliant refers to anything that shines, coming as it does from the French brillant (shining). What is so shiny about incomplete work, one wonders. Around the eighteenth century, brilliant came to be used figuratively to describe anything striking, later developing into a complimentary adjective for very clever people. By and by, it came to be used in the sense of excellent and became a word that could stand in for ‘This is excellent!’


When one language ‘borrows’ a word from another, many developments take place. Vikas, a Sanskrit word, meant the blooming of flowers in general and, more specifically, the opening or khilna of buds. On reaching Hindi, vikas came to be used figuratively, leading to the sense of progress as in vridhhi or vistaar. Today, vikas can be applied to the growth and development of anything, from a nation to a child.