Saturday, April 5, 2003

Language triumphs

THE current US-Iraq crisis has enriched English. Whatever the ultimate outcome, language is the gainer in any such fracas.

Sending journalists to the place of action to live there to cover the scenario produced ‘embedded media’, journalists giving ‘an ant’s view of the anthill’. Daily use of the term embedded media has led to these reporters being called embeds. So far, embed has been used as a verb, as a noun this is a new coinage that should find its way into dictionaries soon. In the news recently, the word embed has been used as a noun at least three times.

Fence-sitter has also been in the news, thanks to the urgency of naming countries ‘for’ and ‘against’ the war. The shortening of defence created the word fence in Middle English, leading to the sense of a barrier or enclosure. Later, the idea of an enclosure led to the expression ‘side of the fence’ in order to refer to conflicting sides in a particular situation or a debate. This further gave rise to the expression ‘sitting on the fence’, meaning ‘to avoid making a choice’. This phrase created the back-formation ‘fence-sitter’, in tune with words like baby-sitter. A back-formation is the creation of a simple word from a longer structure. Surprisingly, baby-sitter and house-sitter have found a place in the dictionary but fence-sitter has not. Perhaps, the dictionary editors would like to sit on the fence and wait for this crisis to make the decision for them!

March 15, 2003
Describing people
March 1, 2003
A living language
February 15, 2003
The New Year - III
February 1, 2003
The New Year - II
January 18, 2003
The New Year
January 4, 2003
Lively lives
December 21, 2002
Fashion statements
December 7, 2002
Spreading wings
November 23, 2002
Borrowed words
November 9, 2002

The expansion of the fences of meaning is an ongoing process. It can be spotted clearly when a politician uses a word seen more often in the context of prosody. Consonance is a word normally used while discussing music or poetry. The origin of the word itself lies in the world of music, coming as it does from the Latin cosonantia, ‘sounding together’. In prosody, it refers to the recurrence of similar sounds, especially consonants, in close proximity. In music, consonance refers to the combination of notes that are in harmony with each other due to the relationship between their frequencies. By implication, consonance has developed the sense of agreement or compatibility between opinions or actions. Given the origin of the word and its specific context, it becomes a powerful tool in the hands of a world leader who is a poet.

Pre-empt is another back-formation from pre-emption, that refers to the act of forestalling. Pre-emption comes from the Latin praeemere, which is made up of prae ‘in advance’ and emere ‘buy’. Historically, in North America and Australia, it referred to the right to purchase public land before it was placed before all bidders. Today, it means the purchase of goods or shares by one person or party before the opportunity is offered to others. Pre-empt, in the context of the world today, refers to the taking of an action in order to prevent an anticipated event happening. The etymology of the word contains elements of trade and commerce as well, giving another dimension to today’s events.


Within this arena of vested interests lies the village of Ganoda in Banswada, Rajasthan, where the inhabitants are working hard to keep Sanskrit a living language by making it the second language of their people. Through door-to-door teaching, posters and synchronised shloka-recital, they are trying to make theirs a model Sanskrit village.

This feature was published on March 29, 2003