Saturday, May 9, 2009

Words evolve

In tune with the rest of the organic world, language evolves and keeps changing through its parts. A significant contribution to this evolution comes from its words. When one looks up a word in the dictionary and becomes aware of its many senses, it begins to look like a bunch of grapes. Just as a bunch of grapes develops from a single node, one word grows a cluster of meaning around itself.

The over-sweet grapes are the oldest senses of the word, the slightly sweet ones are the recent senses and the sour, hard ones are the meanings that are yet to be accepted by a dictionary. Like the juice-press in a winery, the dictionary extracts the essence of every usage and bottles it as perfect wine.

Some words are like the big grapes that prefer to cluster with other big grapes, keeping small growth at bay. These words have not changed in meaning at all. For instance, the word ‘amethyst’ that refers to a violet-coloured precious stone. But, some words like ‘nice’ travel a long distance in order to pick up meanings like ‘stupid’, ‘ignorant’, fussy’, extravagant’, ‘precise’ and ‘agreeable’. The jury is still out on whether ‘agreeable’ will be fixed as the final grape in the cluster.

New words can develop through a process termed ‘narrowing’ that takes place when a word with a general meaning is gradually applied to anything more specific. Three classic examples are the nouns ‘corn’, ‘deer’ and ‘litter’. Today, ‘corn’ refers to a particular cereal, a ‘deer’ is a specific kind of animal and ‘litter’ refers to odds and ends.

Earlier, the first was any cereal, the second was any animal and the third was the bedding of an animal, made up of sundry things. Sometimes, this narrowing and its reverse, i.e. widening of meaning can create a pair of words. An instance of such pairing is the word ‘nude’ and the word ‘naked’. Down the ages, ‘nude’ which started life as a legal term for ‘unenforceable’ has narrowed down to ‘anything suggestive’ and naked has become a generalised term for bareness.