Saturday, April 22, 2006

Between the lines

WHEN speakers all over the world use a language and own it for themselves, there are bound to be alterations and additions to the form, making hybridism of meaning a surety. Once a user becomes conscious linguistically, it is difficult to ignore the ways in which meaning and context varies regularly. For instance, take the word ‘just’ in ‘she’s just brilliant’ and ‘this is just a little dirty’; in the former sentence it means ‘very’ and in the latter ‘not very’. Originally, in French, ‘just’ meant ‘equitable or rightful’ and later came to mean ‘exactly’ as in ‘just a spoonful’. Today it also means ‘merely’ as in ‘just an assistant’.

One can find such shifts and extensions all the time but matters become more complicated when developments in time bring in more shades, often the reverse of the original. After approximately 2000 years of calling a traitor a ‘Judas’ and using ‘thirty pieces of silver’ as a traitor’s price, historians now say that perhaps Christ knew what Judas was doing and wanted to be released from his human body. So, do these expressions stand cancelled? Similarly, after Julius Caesar, the Roman emperor was assassinated by a group of his own friends, ‘Et tu Brutus!’ (You, too Brutus?) became an expression to be used when one’s friend betrayed one. But fresh research suggests that Caesar suffered from incurable epilepsy and wanted a glorious death that would not look like suicide, so he ignored all warnings and rushed to the senate hall on that fateful day. So, is the unfortunate Brutus no longer the symbol of a deceitful friend and ‘Et tu Brutus!’ no longer a cry of betrayal?

Pets are VIPs in the household today and, recently, ultramodern pet care centres with ultra comfortable facilities have come up in many cities. These care centres have trained attendants, gourmet dog food, clean kennels and an air-conditioned environment for our canine friends. One advertisement for such a centre declared: ‘Not a dog’s life anymore’. Perhaps this means the demise of all dog-related expressions as dogs suddenly have better homes than humans.