Saturday, November 27, 2004

The passage of time

MANY words that bear relation to the passage of time have today metamorphosed into different connotations. The word puny is used for anyone small and feeble today. Originally, puny meant ‘later’, made up as it is of the French puisne, a combination of puis (later) and ne (born). In the 12th century, puny was used for babies and younger children, who were born later, hence did not have the same strength as those born earlier. The idea of weakness stayed on, leaving the ‘born later’ part behind.

Anniversary, for instance, is made up of the Latin annus, meaning year, and verto, meaning turn. Put together, the two give the idea of the high point of the year when the year turns. Annus has also given annual, each year and perennial; the Latin per- meaning through.

Oriental and occidental too bear relation to the march of time. The word orient comes from the Latin word orientis, meaning ‘rising’. All the eastern countries are termed the oriental countries, as, for the Europe of the early times, the Sun rose from the Far East, hence the label of orient. To the ancient Greek soothsayers, the East signified life and the beginning of things. They judged the future by observing the flight of birds released from their cages. If the birds flew eastward, it meant good fortune. But a westward flight meant disaster, for the setting sun stood for death and destruction. The Latin occido, the source of occidental or western, means both ‘set’ and ‘die’.

Journey comes from the Old French jornee, meaning ‘day’. The old meaning stood preserved in the Old English journey that meant ‘a day’s work or a day’s travel’. In the earlier difficult times, a journey had to halt once the day was over. As journeys became longer, the word too lost its connection with time, becoming synonymous with travel. The word journeyman as used for a worker hence does not refer to a traveller but to a worker who was engaged for a day at a time.

This feature was published on November 20, 2004