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More etymology

by Geoff Hart

Previously published as: Hart, G.J. 1990. More etymology. Canadian Forest Service, Sault Ste. Marie, Ont. Staff Newsletter, April:12–14.

This is the second installment in my series on the curious origins and meanings of words. It's interesting to note the changes that have occurred to words over time, and how this affects our perceptions of what we read; for example, take the obvious example of how the meaning of the word gay has changed during the past century alone.

awesome/wonderful: While tutoring a young high school student in grammar, I came across these two words in some compositions she had written. When I asked her if she knew the real meanings of the two words, she replied that they both meant "really good". In fact, awesome means "awe inspiring" and wonderful means "full of wonder". Conversely, the word awful once meant "full of awe", but in a very different sense: it used to be considered a frightening thing to feel awe of someone or something, thus an awful experience was one that you wouldn't want to repeat because of the awe it inspired in you. Although attending the birth of one's first child might justifiably be described as awesome (perhaps even awful, in either the modern or the older sense) and wonderful, one would only rarely say the same thing about one's most recent vacation. The current generation of students will undoubtedly not make any distinction between these words, and it is no doubt a result of our media culture, in which words such as great and super have proliferated like scum on a stagnant pond. Such words have become so common that there are no longer any words that really mean "great" and "super" when we see them; we have learned to discount these adjectives because we see them so often that they have lost all meaning, and in so doing, we have robbed the English language of some of its richness.

vice-president: Although we tend to take this to mean "the president of vice", something that a cynic might well accept as a given for the modern politician, the word vice actually means "in the place of" (from the Latin vicis). The other meaning of vice, that of corrupt or unethical activities, one must leave to the press to uncover. It is interesting to consider that a vice-president would be considered a lieutenant (see below), as this has fascinating implications about the exercise of power.

lieutenant: This word comes from the French words lieu (place) and tenant (holding), and has the literal meaning of a "place holder" (i.e., a replacement). In traditional usage, your lieutenant was someone you trusted to take your place in various dealings, what we might now call your "right-hand man". The idea behind this was that you could trust this person to do anything your right hand could do, which makes it a curiosity that British usage has changed the word to read leftenant in certain instances. As was discussed in the previous installment in this series, left (in its original incarnation, sinister), meant something suspicious or that couln't be trusted. Perhaps this is because the British and the Americans differ in their feelings towards those who could someday replace them. (See also the definition for the word "predecessor" in the earlier article on etymology for another side to this.)

standard: A standard was traditionally something that everyone agreed upon and that was more or less fixed and unvarying; when circumstances changed enough, the standard too could be changed. Now, as a result of the computer revolution, the rate of change has become so fast that some standards change faster than non-standards ever did. In fact, sometimes computer people get so frustrated with the rate of change that they create their own standards, usually ones that are not compatible with earlier standards; a case in point is that of the computer operating system UNIX, which currently has no fewer than three competing standards. We may very well be seeing the destruction of another word's meaning, as calling something a standard when it has three separate and distinct identities, each of which is being updated at a furious rate, robs the word of its original meaning. We seem to do a lot of that nowadays, don't we?

computer: A computer, strictly speaking, is something that computes; that is, something that performs arithmetic operations on numbers. Nonetheless, when one thinks of the modern computer, one tends to think of something far different from a very large calculator. This is incorrect, since even the most advanced digital computers simply manipulate large numbers composed of strings of ones and zeros. The fact that this sort of computation somehow allows us to do things such as write this article or display animated pictures leads to some interesting speculations on how human thoughts (such as words on a printed page) can be seen by a computer scientist as nothing more than symbols that express the results of endless numerical computations. Similarly, if a picture is worth a thousand words (more typically, 32 Kilobytes of RAM memory, as on my home computer), this has interesting implications for the nature of reality, however one wishes to define reality. Perhaps I'll delve into this a little more in a subsequent article, but for the present, I'll leave you with this thought: what we call computers could probably be better described by the word symbolizers, since the manipulation of symbols is becoming more important than number crunching in many of the fields of computing that affect us most directly.

brief: Brief, as we all know, means something short, in the same sense that men's underwear (shorts) are often called briefs; thus, to "brief" someone means to give them a shortened account of some occurrence in an attempt to inform them as quickly and painlessly as possible. Interestingly, lawyers have adapted this concept to produce so-called legal briefs, which are often anything but brief. Our society, never at a loss to adopt or even create the latest in misleading nomenclature, has taken this term to heart for use in its own distribution of information. Some of these briefs weigh in at 20 or 30 pounds, which leads one to wonder how long they were before they were shortened. It's been said that there is no single concept that cannot be adequately explained, at least as an essentially correct summary, in fewer than 1000 words, which most of us would consider relatively brief. Thus, one is led to the suspicion that the true purpose of a modern briefing is not, as one might expect, to educate and inform, but rather to conceal 1000 or fewer words of substance in a much greater body of distracting and unnecessary verbiage. (Fans of the Britcom Yes, Prime Minister will be well aware of how cunningly this can be done.)

library: A library is a place in which books are stored; in the original Latin, books are liber, from which the French obtained the word livre. (One might idly speculate that the word "pound", either the unit of weight or of currency, which is also livre in French, derives from the weight or cost of early books.) A seemingly very different word, liberty (simplistically, freedom) also comes from the root word liber. If it is true that "the truth shall set you free", then it is noteworthy that much of that truth can be found in books and other forms of writing. Indeed, in times of oppression in which the truth was taken to be whatever the tyrant of the day said it was, books represented a repository of truth that remained uncorrupted. In a sense, the phrase "freedom of the press" is redundant, because the printed word (i.e., in a liber) carries within it the premise of liberty, the freedom that comes from the knowledge contained in books. Knowledge arms one against the many problems that might be faced in day to-day life, and although "ignorance is bliss", the uninformed are vulnerable to the plans of those who know a lot more. Interestingly, Canadians and Americans don't seem to trust anyone who appears too intelligent or too well-educated, perhaps because of a fear that anyone who spends too much time in libraries might find a way to take from us some of our liberties... and that we might not be smart enough to spot the problem and do something about it in time. You can't be free without knowledge, and although reading isn't a perfect defence against loss of freedom, it is a powerful piece of armor.

Of course, reading well demands a good understanding of words, and the recognition that words may not always mean what they seem to say.


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