Online, kids and computer aficionados are inventing a new language. For example, the now-old term “newbie” has been transformed into “n00b.” Of course, it is an ancient practice for kids to develop their own code to evade their parents’ comprehension, to bond with their peers, and to express their coolness.
The other day at a Web content management conference for business communicators, one of the speakers used the term “prog.” It took a few seconds for my mind to process this as, “You’ll need a program to do this.” Even middle-aged professionals are using the new geek shorthand and jargon, as though it is commonly understood — even if it isn’t.
As Robert McCrum, William Cran, and Robert MacNeil noted in The Story of English, language evolves constantly, and every group has contributed to its richness. You cannot imagine American English without its Spanish, French, Italian, German, Native American, Yiddish, and other components. Now the online world has added more. Merriam-Webster, the online dictionary editors rely on, reports that “blog,” short for Web log, has been the most looked-up word in 2004. No one has online journals or diaries; they have blogs.
Recently, I have been thinking about how words have lost their power because they have been disconnected from their original meaning, context, or symbolism. If I say “glade” to you, you’re as likely to think of an air freshener as a clearing in the forest — and you probably haven’t really thought about what the brand name is intended to evoke. If I mention “Ajax,” you’d probably think first of the cleaning product before remembering that Ajax was a Greek hero of the Trojan War. Dawn, tide, joy, crest — all simple words so associated with brands and so little used in everyday conversation that their power to evoke an image or a meaning has been diluted. When was the last time you described the dawn to a friend? Talked about the tides? Shared your joy in so many words? Admired a cardinal’s crest? (Or thought about why the bird is called a cardinal?) Do you know the origin of any of these words?
I’m reading a history textbook, The Mainstream of Civilization to 1715 by Stanley Chodorow, MacGregor Knox, Conrad Schirokauer, Joseph R. Strayer, and Hans W. Gatzke. The authors mention Vandals — and they don’t mean mischievous teenagers drawing graffiti with markers. When you visit a museum, do you contemplate the origin of the word? It’s from the Greek Muses, the goddesses who inspire such arts as poetry and music. Politics comes from the Greek polis, or city-state. Indeed, if you look at the origins of many of our most common words, you’ll discover the richness of their origins and the way that language has evolved during the thousands of years of written history — and even how some words have not changed much in the course of time.
Pick your favourite words and explore their etymology. You’ll not only restore their original meaning and symbolism, but you’ll also learn about history (such as Vandals), natural history, the arts, and more. And you’ll find out that Latin is not such a dead language after all. It lives on in the very word computer.