Saturday, December 28, 2002

Lively lives

JUST as some people have interesting life stories, words too can tell lively tales. Here are some words with colourful biographies.

A prude is a person who is or claims to be easily shocked by matters relating to sex and nudity. Prude comes from French where it originally meant wise woman; prude femme or prode femme. Prod, prudent comes from the Latin prodis with the same sense, derived from the verb prodesse, to be good. English alone is not responsible for giving the word derogatory overtones; the process had already started in French when a woman who was too wise became an irritant. From woman alone to all humans is but a short semantic jump.

The verb debunk means to expose or ridicule the falseness or hollowness of a myth, idea or belief. It is made up of the prefix de, meaning to remove, and the word bunk. Bunk was born during the Sixteenth United States Congress. Felix Walker, a representative from Western North Carolina, whose district included Buncombe County, continued on with a dull speech in the face of protests by his colleagues. Walker replied he had felt obligated "to make a speech for Buncombe." The language users could not ignore such a masterful symbol for empty talk; so Buncombe, spelled Bunkum, was born in 1828. Later, it was shortened to bunk and it became synonymous with claptrap. In 1923 was created the word debunk that led onto the nouns debunker and debunkery.

Fashion statements
December 7, 2002
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

From South Africa comes the word apartheid, an Afrikaans word that is made up of the Dutch apart (separate) and heid (hood), literally meaning ‘separate hood’. Today, it refers to a policy or system of segregation or discrimination on grounds of race. The word apartheid came into existence when the Afrikaner National Party adopted it as a slogan in the 1948 election. After the electoral success of the party, the slogan of apartheid extended and institutionalised existing racial segregation. Despite rioting and terrorism at home and isolation abroad from the 1960s onwards, the white regime maintained the apartheid system with minor relaxations until February 1991, by which time the word had come to stay in the lexicon. It has also led to the idea of segregation in other senses, as in sexual apartheid.

The history of cabal is the intriguing tale of how a word can be transferred from one sphere of activity to another while retaining only a faint link with its past. Originally, cabal came from Hebrew, reaching English via Latin and French. In the seventeenth century, English adopted the word cabala that later became cabal. This came from kabbalah, cabala or qabalah. These were the various names for the Hebrew oral interpretation of the Bible, transmitted by Moses. It was also the name given to the Jewish religious philosophy based on an esoteric interpretation of the Hebrew Scriptures. French developed the idea of cabal being esoteric further during the seventeenth century; a time of plots and counterplots by royalists and parliamentarians. The five most influential ministers of Charles II were Clifford, Arlington, Buckingham, Ashley and Lauderdale, giving cabal a false etymology.


The Hindi sachiv is used today in all places where the English secretary would be used; secretary… of an organisation, to a busy person or a senior official in a government department. These are senses created by convenience. Originally, in Sanskrit, sachiv was used in the sense of a saathi or sakha, i.e. confidant. Today’s meaning developed after the confidential advisor to the king came to be called sachiv.

This feature was published on December 21, 2002