Old words, new meanings: read this if you’re a mouse potato

Published in The Weekend Independent Magazine on 29 July 2011

Time changes all things; there is no reason why language should escape this universal law.

— Ferdinand de Saussure, linguist (1857-1913)

Paperbacks and hardcovers

Despite 70,000 years of practice and modification, humans’ ability to use language as an effective means of communication remains fairly patchy.  Obviously, some are better at it than others, but few of us can make it through a day without either thinking or saying, “I didn’t mean it like that!”  Thus it’s no surprise that a book describing the difficulties of language and meaning was ranked by an esteemed journal as the most important of 20th century philosophy more half 50 years after it was published.  The author of “Philosophical Investigations,” Austrian philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein, argued that the definition of a word depends on its public use, regardless of whether that differs from the object or idea it was intended to represent.  Wittgenstein saw language as a game in which participants must pay attention to the social backdrop of words in order to be understood.   To illustrate his point – rather beautifully — he wrote, “If a lion could talk, we could not understand him.”

Yet never mind the lion – what if you’d heard the following sentence 15 years ago?

“I can’t surf the net because my mouse isn’t working.”

Or this, five years ago:

“I tried to post on your wall but your profile is limited.”

Both would be incomprehensible, though the words familiar.

It’s difficult to over-estimate the impact of the internet and its hugely popular spin-off, social networking, on our vocabulary.  Nouns and verbs that were once so singularly familiar have acquired entirely new “online” meanings without forfeiting their original definition.

There is a special name for an old word that’s been linguistically recycled: it’s a retronym.  “Google” offers a terrific example of a word’s potential for longevity.  We all know it as the leading search engine; fewer realise it also denotes a number followed by 100 zeros.  Virtually no one is aware of the older verb “google”, which the Oxford Dictionary defines as a wobbly bowl in cricket.  In Vladimir Nabokov’s novel Ada, published in 1969, he writes, “Ada mounted [the bicycle], uttered a yelp of pain, almost fell off, googled, recovered – and the rear tire burst with a comic bang.”  And its fourth reincarnation is a transitive verb “to google,” which is how most of us describe the process of searching for information on the web.  The lower case “google” was added to the Oxford English Dictionary in 2006, and the American Dialect Society chose it as the “most useful word of 2002.”  However rather than being flattered by its own ubiquity, Google high-ups feared genericization and in 2006 issued a public plea to “only use ‘Google’ when you’re actually referring to Google Inc. and our services.”  The request clearly fell on deaf ears.

So perhaps it was out of sheer sympathy that Google decided to prioritise the luncheon meat Spam in online searches.  Though it’s impossible to believe that the luncheon meat (first released to the public in 1937) attracts more hits than the spam we love (and deserve) to hate, a Google search gives the meat top spot.   Incidentally, “spam,” whose origins are often mistaken as an acronym, takes its name from a Monthy Python skit, in which British comedians dressed as Vikings sang a loud song about Spam and drowned out the conversations of other diners.  According to Hub Pages, “This overload of junk emails reminded [someone] of the Monty Python skit.  Somehow the name “spam” for junk emails stuck.”

However there is a difference between the examples listed above and the “classic” retronyms identified by Frank Mankiewicz when he coined the word in 1980.  Mankiewicz noticed that the first guitars were simply called guitars – until the electric guitar came along.  Thus “acoustic” was added to “guitar” to differentiate the two.  However now that electric guitars are far more common than those requiring amplification, “electric” is being phased out.  Another well known retronym is the “paperback” book, which was retrospectively added to “book” when hardcovers appeared.

The person credited with popularizing the term “retronym”, New York Times journalist William Safire, describes retronyms in the following way (and manages to pop in one of his own): “The idea of a retronym is to downdate: to modify a familiar term in a way that calls attention to it not being the updated version.”

Likewise, according to Websters Online Dictionary, “A retronym requires that the original name has come to be used for something else, is no longer unique, or is otherwise inappropriate or misleading.”  Yet we are still perfectly capable of forming sentences that include “off-line” definitions of words such as home, tag, site, chat, icon, active, link, poke and web.  It’s so easy, in fact, that “Generation ‘Like’” (as I like to call us) uses both definitions without thinking – an observation also made by Lyrysa Smith of The Toronto Star: “Most retronyms evolve without any of us being fully aware of them… and we integrate them naturally into our lexicon.”   Nevertheless, I couldn’t help but chuckle when I turned on my computer today and was asked to “enter my user name.”  A decade ago, to have a “user name” may have implied something mysterious and seedy.

Webster’s Online Dictionary acknowledges that many retronyms are the result of advances in technology – and like any word, whether it be new or a new meaning, Wikipedia states, “It is unusual… for a word to enter common use if it does not resemble another word or words in an identifiable way…”  Perhaps then, the creators of Facebook and the like are deliberately adopting words so familiar that we wouldn’t dream of not using them.

NB: While researching this article, I came across “Mouse potato –  A person who spends a great deal of of time in front of a computer (cf. couch potato)” on Word Spy, a website that tracks new words (a.k.a. neologisms)

 

A READER’S LETTER PUBLISHED IN THE INDEPENDENT ON 5 AUGUST 2011

Old Words, New Meanings- Good Piece!

Jessica Mudditt’s article ‘Old Words, New Meanings’ was interesting and I enjoyed how she referred to various linguists and writers and philosophers without making it heavy or boring. It was a pleasure to go through it and the idea expressed is something that has always interested me- language as an ever-evolving, ever-adapting entity. Language is so much a part of culture too. In one of my literature classes, the lecturer told us a story. An English novel was being taught to young children in a school in Nigeria and in one part of the novel, the characters kiss. Now this concept was entirely unfamiliar to them and even after the meaning of the word ‘kiss’ was explained to them they cold not comprehend how it is meant in a European or ‘modern’ context. This I assume is in accordance to Wittgenstein’ views, as wonderfully put forth in the article by Jessica along with many others.

Samir
BRAC University

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2 thoughts on “Old words, new meanings: read this if you’re a mouse potato”

  1. I admire anyone who can get Google and Wittgenstein into the same language think-piece — well done. It was instructive, and rarely left me questioning the facts or analysis. My tiny cavils: a) mass market paperbacks first appeared in the 1940s; b) I’m far from the only one who would have understood “I can’t surf the net because my mouse isn’t working” 15 years ago (web browsers appeared in the early ’90s), though few Dhakaites would, I am sure, and they are your readership more than expats; c) Facebook is itself about 15 years old, and I expect some folks would have been on it five years ago even in BD. Anyway, I hope you and Sherpa are well. I miss you both and of course greatly miss Shahnaz. (I am rather down about her not being able to wait for me to get BD work, though I do not blame her). I am keeping myself busy in Toronto, and am sure our paths will cross again; sooner, I still hope.

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