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CHAPTER 2 – How New Things are Named

CHAPTER 2 – How New Things are Named

There may be something in the above theory of sound, but many would have preferred a less speculative and more empirical treatment of the subject.

In that case, the best way would be to see how names are given in our own times. Name-giving is not something which took place long ago in the beginning of things. It is taking place even now. New words are constantly taking birth. The Oxford English Dictionary has recently published a Supplement which is not yet complete. From A to G, it gives 18,000 words with 30,000 different meanings that have been accepted into the English language in the last 100 years. New experiences, new things, new concepts call for new names. Let us take certain new concrete facts like a motor car, a telephone, a telescope, a telegraph, an aeroplane, an aeronaut or astronaut or pilot, etc. They have come into being only lately. Let us see how they have been named.

The process is something like this. Suppose some new concept or idea appears on the horizon and calls for a new name; then we review our old experience to find something in it to characterize the new. Probably we have a number of words to choose from. Then one of those words with suitable modifications could be used to describe the new fact; another retained to express the old. This is possible because, at heart, the new facts themselves have some kind of unity with the old. Words express this unity of experience. In due course, the two words would acquire shades of meaning which they did not have before.

Now take motor cars and let us see how they were named. ‘Car’ is an old word. In the Celtic language, it was karr, a chariot; in the Irish language carr, a cart. The German (Ger.) karre also meant the same thing. It is also allied to Latin (L.) currus, a chariot. So car was an old word which first described a cart, a barrow or a chariot, then began to describe the new transport. In the process, it also gave birth to many more words like career, cargo, charge, etc.

Thus car, cart, chariot, though they are from the same source, are now used to describe particular kinds of vehicles.

The word ‘vehicle’ itself is an old one. Through various inter- mediate stages, it could be traced to the Sanskrit (Skt.) root vah, to carry, which gives us the Skt. vahana, a vehicle. This root is also the ancestor of several other modern words like way, wagon, envoy, voyage.

The same is true of the word ‘telephone’. It derives from the Greek (Gk.) tele, afar off, and phdné, voice or sound. Phadn2 itself has probably and older cousin in Skt. bhan, to speak. So a telephone is ‘distant speaking’; it now applies to the instrument which makes distant communication possible.

The words ‘telescope’ and ‘telegram’ have also a similar origin. ‘Telescope’ derives from the Gk. tele, afar off, and skopein, to behold, itself related to Skt. pas or spaS, to see. In ‘telegraph’, ‘graph’ derives from Gk. graphein, to write, to scratch. This root also gives us the modern English word ‘carve’, which shows that writing was once carving or, at least, that the two processes were intimately linked.

Now take another word ‘airplane’ or ‘aeroplane’ which is more popular in Great Britain. Here also the object is new but the name is old. The word is derived from two Greek words: aér, air, and planos, wandering (which gives us another beautiful word ‘planet’ from ‘planét’ or planés, a wanderer). So, an aeroplane means a wanderer in the sky. But it could as well have received a name from any root which gives us words like ‘eagle’, ‘kite’, or ‘bird’. In fact, in some dialects of India, an aeroplane is called cila gadi, a kite vehicle. Indonesia has named its international air services after Garuda, the divine king of birds in Hindu mythology.

The word ‘aeronaut’ which means one who travels by or operates an airship derives from Gk. aér, air, and nautés, sailor, from naus, a ship. A ship or boat is also nau in Sanskrit.

‘Aeronaut’ has a synonym in ‘astronaut’. It derives from L. astrum, Gk. astron, Skt. tard, all meaning a star. So an astronaut means a traveller in interplanetary space.

But the two words have not been able to replace the older one, ‘pilot’, which still continues to be popular. ‘Pilot’ derives from Gk. peda, steering oars. So probably the word originally meant a person who plied a country boat; then it began to refer to those employed to steer a ship. Now it applies to one who flies or is qualified to fly an aeroplane. Thus its use was extended from the maritime to the aeronautical.


Now from simple names of concrete things let us go to words of a different magnitude where they express social and psycho- logical factors. Sometimes a word contains the history of the rise and fall of nations, classes, gods, ideologies, their conflicts and reconciliations, their clashes and dialectical movements, their pretence, reality and rationalization. It contains a good deal of historical and sociological data congealed in one place, which may not be available elsewhere.

Let us take words such as barter, exploit, capital, property, used in books on Economics; or names of classes like slaves, serfs, proletariat; or epithets like gentleman, sahib, comrade, minister. These are all socially significant words and they will illustrate our point.

The word ‘barter’ now has the sense of exchange of goods. But, according to etymologists, its earlier form also meant ‘to cheat’, ‘to beguile’, ‘to betray’. Not all exchange may be cheating but the word expresses a great human experience that exchange could be the vehicle of great cheating, even more than stray cases of outright snatching and robbing. In fact, nations and classes are cheated more through differential terms of trade and manipulated exchange rates than through direct human exploitation. Now, in most countries, there is no direct slave labour as such, but there are differential rates of remuneration and exchange which are unrelated to the intrinsic worth or value of different kinds of activities or labour, and as a result whole classes and nations are cheated. For example, the dollar-rupee exchange ratio is quite unrelated to the internal purchasing power of the two currencies. In America, a dollar will not buy goods worth more than two rupees in India but their exchange value does not reflect this fact. This is not fair trade.

Another word we very commonly hear these days is ‘exploit’. Originally, the word had a good sense. It meant ‘to achieve’, ‘to act with effect’. Next, it acquired a connected but lower meaning, ‘to turn to account’—not to accountability but to profitability. In the last century, the word has acquired another meaning, ‘to utilize for selfish purpose’. That is the nature of all rajsika (impure vital) movements. These lead to self-motivated use of others. Today, the exploitation of nature’s resources is even more selfish and leads to greater dangers than the exploitation of labour.

Then we have the word ‘capital’. It is a word of Latin origin and meant wealth, stock, worth, property. But in a pre-industrial age, the concept of wealth itself was different. Capital in those days mainly meant property in land, animals and even slaves. In fact, in due course, the word capital gave rise to a doublet, ‘cattle’, and ‘chattel’, which developed these senses more fully. ‘Cattle’ originally meant property in general, then it began to mean property in bovine animals. ‘Chattel’ acquired the added sense of a slave or a bondsman. Today, capital fulfills some of its old functions and answers to some of its old definitions in a new setting. In a way, it has not changed much in its relations and attitudes. Whether it is the soil or the hidden bowels of the mother earth or the elements of nature or God’s other creatures or fellow- men, all are factors of production. All are for maximum use.

The next word ‘property’ is related to the words ‘proper’ and ‘propriety’. It is from the L. proprius, one’s own. Philosophically, it meant a quality or trait belonging and especially peculiar to an individual. So it meant a thing’s true nature, or what makes it what it is, what differentiates it from others. This gave the word the sense of virtue, proper, fitting, righteous, appropriate. In India, the term used was dharma, quality, attribute, nature. From this, the word acquired a passive sense, ‘something owned or possessed’ or ‘appropriated exclusively’. From this, in easy steps, the word acquired a more material meaning, ‘a piece of real estate’, or ‘real estate to which a person has exclusive legal rights’.

Now take another word ‘slave’. It is derived from Slavs, the Slavonic peoples of Central Europe. When they were captured and made bondsmen, they gave birth to the word ‘slave’.

Gibbon, whom W.W. Skeat quotes, thought that the word was allied to Russian slava, which meant glory and fame; Eric Patridge thinks that the word literally meant ‘the speaker’ and hence an ‘intelligent’ person, as opposed to the Germans who were called ‘the mutes’. But as fortunes changed, the word which once signified glory, fame and intelligence now signified servitude and meanness.

The word ‘slave’ also gave us the word ‘serf’. Originally, ‘serf” meant a slave in general from L. seruus, a slave; but during medieval times, it acquired the specifically feudal meaning of a bonded servant attached to the soil. The forces and relations of production change, but the dispossessed remain the same. The slaves became serfs and later on the same class provided the labour force for the factories under a different name.

This brings us to the word ‘proletariat’, which is very much in use these days. Now it means ‘a class of industrial workers who lack their own means of production and hence sell their labour to live’. Under Marxist influence, it has also acquired an ideological meaning and, today, it may also mean the ‘future’ class, the class that will inherit the earth. But, historically, the word referred to those who belonged to the lowest class. The word derives from L. proletarius, a member of the lowest class, but useful for producing children (proles, progeny) for the state for military purposes. Later on, under the influence of Adam Smith, the contribution of this class was supposed to consist in providing labour to the industrial system at a subsistence level.

Now we take up different epithets or names by which people call themselves and call each other. The word ‘gentleman’ means aman of noble and generous character, some one polite, courteous and gallant. The word is derived from L. gentilis, belonging to the same clan (Skt. jan, to beget), and hence good, noble and well- born. With the passage of time, the word acquired a class significance. It began to signify a man of independent means, a man who does not engage in any occupation or profession for gain. It also acquired a legal definition. Only those entitled to bear arms were called gentlemen.

But economic circumstances were changing and old Jetses were dying out. To belong to an upper class socially without its supporting income was bound to deflate the meaning of the word. And, hence, under new compulsions and also under the influence of new equalitarian concepts, the word in its older meaning is going out of fashion. It is now used to signify all male members of any social class or condition. Some even feel embarrassed if the word is applied to them. It has also come to mean, jocularly, aman without means of livelihood, a gentleman at large.

We have the word ‘sa=hib’ used in India for European rulers and for our own upper class. It is an Arabic word which originally meant a ‘companion’. But when the Arabs became imperial rulers, the word acquired a different connotation. It began to mean ‘master’ or ‘lord’ and it still retains that meaning.

The word ‘comrade’ is undergoing a similar sea-change. It is derived from a Spanish word camarada, a cabin-mate, a tent- sharer, a companion. Within the Communist parties, the term was initially applied to the equals in struggle. But as the power equation changed and the rebels became rulers, the meaning of the word also changed. In Soviet Russia and other Communist _ countries, the word does not mean any cheek by jowl relationship or hail-fellow-well-met familiarity; on the other hand, it means something like ‘lord’ or ‘ruler’ to the common people, some one against whom you should be on your guard.

The word ‘minister’ is Latin in origin and it meant a servant, one who assisted another at a religious cult, hence a public officer, finally one at the head of a political department. It is in this sense that the word is used in India, as some one very important and privileged. There is also nothing very self-effacing and humble about a church minister in consonance with the lowly origin of the word. If any thing, he is even more pretentious. He administers the sacraments and saves souls; he is an official of the church, the sole channel of God’s grace.


In the examples quoted above, one feature stands out prominently: that in no case a completely new word has to be invented to indicate a new fact or new object. An old word is found to name a new object. And like a living organism, the old responds to accommodate the new. If a new word is invented at all, the invention must be at a very different level hardly accessible to the ordinary perception.

In the process of challenge and response, a word sometimes suffers contraction in meaning and sometimes experiences expansion. Sometimes from a concrete and narrow sense, it acquires a more abstract and general meaning. Sometimes words from the same root develop different suggestions of the root and bifurcate in very different directions. Sometimes of two words of two different origins but meaning the same thing, one is taken up and the other dropped; or both are retained to indicate two differ- ent shades of the same general meaning.

For example, ‘shop’ in England meant a small retail establish- ment. In America, this meaning was replaced by the word ‘store’. The word ‘shop’ itself took the meaning of a ‘factory’. In the past, in the days of agricultural and cattle economy, the word had a different meaning than either a factory or even a store. It meant ‘a shed for cattle’ as in Anglo-Saxon scypen, or ‘a shed, a cart-house’ as in Ger. schuppen.

Take another word ‘merchant’. It derives from L. mercari, to barter, and came to mean a trader, a dealer in merchandise. This sense was retained in America but, in England, the word was restricted to apply to a wholesale trader especially with foreign countries. The change came when the merchants of the East India Company became rich. After that the name which they had hitherto shared with their less successful brother was not good enough to do justice to them both. So the word acquired a more exclusive connotation.

The word ‘mercer’ too has the same origin as the word ‘merchant’, but it too refers to a specialized trade. It denotes a dealer in textile fabrics.

The word ‘corn’ meant grain in general and especially wheat in England; but when it migrated to America, it began to mean ‘maize’.

Similarly, the ‘Government’ in England was once known as ‘Administration’. Now America uses the word ‘Administration’ while England uses the word ‘Government’ for the same thing.

The two words ‘sick’ and ‘ill’ mean broadly the same thing. But the English thought the Anglo-Saxon ‘sick’ too vulgar and frank and tended to give it up in favour of ‘ill’ of Scandinavian origin, considered more elegant on that account. The Americans, on the other hand, continued with the less formal ‘sick’, especially because it was hallowed by use in the Bible.

‘Trade’ now means to buy and sell, to do business. But origi- nally it meant a tread, a path traversed, then a customary course of action, a recurring habit or manner of life. From this it acquired a restricted meaning, a business or work in which one engages regularly, a profession, a craft. Now though we still have this meaning in phrases like ‘learning a trade’, it has acquired the still more restricted meaning of commerce. Now a tradesman is one who selks commodities.

Words meaning the same thing but derived from different sources are retained not only because they could be adapted to showing different shades of meaning, but also because all kinds of motives and social factors enter into this development. There could be motives of pride or learning. Some expressions are con- sidered genteel, others loud; some are considered too tame, others too suggestive; some too frank, others too prudish. So the words are accepted or rejected according to the prevailing scale of preference. In Great Britain of a hundred years ago, anatomical facts like ‘leg’ or ‘belly’ or ‘breast’ could not be mentioned in —— polite society especially in the presence of ladies. Now there is no such inhibition. In modern America and Europe, no word is frank enough, obscene enough.

In England, amongst the genteel, there is a tendency to use stomach rather than belly, domestic rather than servant, mirror rather than looking-glass, endeavour rather than try, assist rather than help, close rather than shut, proceed rather than go. H.W. Fowler has collected many such examples but they may have already gone out of date as a result of fast changes in the linguistic mores of England ever since he wrote.

A word is replaced by another under the impact of new ideas, theories and associations. For example, it has been suggested to replace a word like prostitution by behaviour-problem, alms by philanthropy or relief or rehabilitation or family welfare. Vice is habit-disease, sin psycho-neurosis, punishment treatment, penitentiary colony. Those who want to change their social status start by first changing their names. Barbers, undertakers, janitors now respectively call themselves beauticians, morticians, super- intendents. H.L. Menken has given many such examples. In our own country, Gandhiji changed the name of the untouchables with a view of raising their social and ideological status. He called them Harijans, people of God. We now have toilets, retiring- rooms, washing-rooms—all euphemisms for words considered too direct or undisguised for a polite society.

Thus a word is not a mere referent. It must refer to a thing ina particular way. It has to respond to the ideas, ideologies and idio- syncracies of the age.


These examples show how new objects and ideas are named. The process consists not in inventing brand-new names but in finding old ones that will cover new cases. In this way, old words are able to serve new needs, renew their life, and retain their sense of continuity. Through this process, we are also able to incorporate new experience and harmonize it with the old.

This is made possible because, in an important sense, the new is not so new; it is continuous with the old. New facts express old functions.

The process of naming probably involves, in a good many cases, sound-imitation. But it must be taking place at a very fundamental, nervous level; and it must be true only of primary and basic ideas, notions and situations. And also from the very start, or at least at a more recognizable level, a new principle which is not merely phonetic but is semantic must supervene.

For, let us remember that to imitate the sound of an object is not to name it. And even a name which expresses the nervous condition of a person in the face of an object is no true name. At best, an echoic name is a potential name. True name begins when it acquires a meaning beyond the object it names. To put it in another way, a true name consists not in what it refers to but in what it means, not in what it denotes but in what it connotes. It is an intellectual process, though the intellect works subliminally.

What happens is something like this. When we meet objects, we give them names after their most striking quality. In some cases, like that of many birds and animals, it may be their cry or sound. The crow, the pigeon, the partridge, the owl have received their names in this way. The crowing sound made by the ‘crow’ also _ earned it this name. The ‘pigeon’ derives its name from its cry of pi, pi, or at least what sounds like pi, pi to many of us. The ‘partridge’ derives its name from its noisy flight, its whirling wings. Some connect this sound with the Skt. pard, to break wind. The ‘owl’ (Skt. ulu=ka, L. ulula) owes this name to the hooting and howling cry it makes.

But their cry is not always the most striking feature of many birds and animals. Therefore, they derive their names from other traits. The ‘horse’ is named not from its neighing but from the swiftness of its movement. Many etymologists connect the word to L. currere, to run, which also gives us the word ‘courser’, another name for a horse. Similarly, a ‘tiger’ derives its name from the same trait, from the rapidity with which it attacks, and from its arrow-swift movement (Skt. tigmas, sharp, pointed; modern Persian and also Hindustani ti=r, an arrow). The Hindustani cheetah, belonging to the family of the lion, derives its name not from its roar but from spots on its body (Skt. citra, variegated). A wolf (Skt. vr+ka) is ‘the tearer’ from the Skt. vrasc, to cut off or asunder. By some, a jackal (Skt. s^r+gdla) is supposed to be ‘the scavenger’.

Among the birds, the ‘hawk’ is probably so named because it pillages and plunders, the old meaning of havoc, probably of the same origin as heave, to lift, to seize. Similarly, the ‘falcon’, belonging to the same family as the hawk, derives its name from the hooked shape of its claws, or from its curved beak or wings (L. falx, a sickle, scythe, pruning-hook). The bird ‘plover’ arrives with the rainy season; it derives its name from this fact (L. pluvia, rain).

A ‘wasp’ probably derives its name from the fine nest it weaves for itself. As a wasp is a weaver, a ‘spider’ is a spinner; in Sanskrit, a spider is called arna-vabhi, wool weaver; vabhi in the com- pound word is from the root vabh, to weave, which became obsolete early in Sanskrit but which was still active in other Indo- Aryan languages and gave us the words ‘web’ and ‘wasp’.

Thus we see that not all names are echoic in origin. But even if it is so, it is merely the first term in a complicated series. The first name of an object may be imitative, but in its turn it becomes the base of the names of other ideas which are hardly so. The cry pi, pi, for example, may give us the word pigeon, but pigeon becomes the base of new names. It characterizes new ideas in a nonechoic manner. This gives us words like ‘pigeon-hearted’, meaning timid, and ‘pigeon-livered’, meaning gentle and mild. It even gives us the word ‘pigeon-hole’, which through a process of meaning-transfer, connotes the idea of laying aside, classifying and categorizing. The word also expands in meaning. Passing through a curious route, it also acquired the meaning of ‘an object of special concern’, or ‘business’ in phrases like ‘this is not my pigeon’. Pigeon is no longer a mere piper, it is also ‘an easy target’, ‘a dupe’.

Similarly, the echoic ‘crow’ supports other tiers of meaning. It also means ‘to gloat’, ‘to exult’. In phrases like ‘as the crow flies’, it means ‘in a straight line’.

The echoic ‘garg’ and ‘gurg’ may give us the word ‘gorge’, meaning throat. ‘Garg’ probably also gives us ‘jargon’, a noise made in the throat, mere rhetoric. ‘Gorge’, in turn, gives us the French gorgias, a necktie. Probably this was considered too fine and showy and thus gave us the word ‘gorgeous’. Others derive this word differently which will connect it with the word ‘jargon’; ‘gorgeous’, they say, comes from the Greek rhetorician ‘Gorgias’ known for his ostentatious living and for his oratory.

Whether this particular derivation is correct or not, it is difficult to say. But a language does abound in names of general import which derive from names of individuals. Not only do we give to individuals names of larger significance, even names beyond their merit and moral and intellectual attainments but the names of individuals too become names of larger ideas and concepts. In English, we have many such examples in ‘boycott’, ‘lynch’, ‘chauvinism’, ‘mercurial’, ‘venereal’, ‘guillotine’, ‘fabian’, ‘epicure’, ‘masochist’, ‘sadist’, ‘philander’, ‘spoonerism’, ‘solecism’, ‘pander’, ‘italics’, ‘braille’, ‘fahrenheit’, ‘laconic’, ‘gin’, ‘sherry’, ‘sandwich’, ‘tantalize’, ‘jingoism’, and so on.

The semantic process is subtle and ubiquitous. It is both psychological as well as intellectual. It operates both in echoic as well as in non-echoic names. It will hold good even if the first names were conventional.

And, in a sense, all names are conventional. A child in the process of growth receives his vocabulary from his elders on authority. He does not participate in the psychological and intellectual process of creating the first language, the kind that we have been discussing. So, in this sense, his language—and by that token the language of all of us—is the language of convention and authority and consensus.

But it makes no difference. For even if the first name is received on authority, it soon begins to absorb the meaning of the referent and stand for like qualities in future. The fundamental semantic process now works through the conventional name, converting signs into symbols, investing them with new meanings, and making them capable of new applications.

The process of naming is complicated and deeply psycho- logical. It operates at a subconscious level. Different elements that go into the making of a name—the referent, the sound, the meaning—all tend to coalesce in the mind so much so that it is difficult to separate them from one another. Ordinarily, the mind thinks like this: A mosquito is so named because it is so in- consequential; or an elephant is so named because it is so huge and majestic, realizing little that the elephant derives its name not from the hugeness of its body but from its ivory tusk. But even then, the mind’s instinct is right. It intuits a semantic relationship between an elephant and its massiveness, its enormous size— ideas which are rendered by the word ‘elephantine’.

We have seen that things derive their names from their at- tributes but it is possible that the attributes chosen are not the most characterisitic. In that case, names given will be inadequate.

The process of naming may also be too much forced or fanciful; it may not be in keeping with the deeper wisdom of the mind. Names thus derived may enjoy a measure of popularity for a time but are bound to disappear in due course. By the same token, names that reflect the deeper processes of the mind will have a longer life.

Alduous Huxley made a verb out of a proper noun from Gustave Flaubert’s novel, Madame Bovary. Conceptualizing the life of the character depicted in the novel, he gave us the word ‘to bovarise’, meaning to believe that one is different from what one really is. The word gives a name to a very important trait of the mind but it failed to catch. Probably the coinage was too self- conscious. Or perhaps, there is more to the life of a word than its appropriateness. Perhaps, like individuals and nations, words too have their destiny, their luck, their allotted time, and even their tuling stars. Like every thing else, they are subject to the cor- roding influence of time. In due course, they lose their freshness and vitality.

Sometimes, certain names and thoughts go out of fashion because they do not agree with the ruling passion and ideology of the age. When the heart loses sympathy or the mind loses vision, words also lose their innerness and contract in meaning. Through a certain shift in the consciousness or in the gravity of life, even good and honourable words may become false—words of courtesy and consideration may become words of mere insincere politeness; words of righteousness may become words of self- righteousness; words may be used not to express but to conceal thought. They begin to ring false. They also become outer, super- ficial and frivolous, conveying only surface meanings. In short, they lose their innerness, authenticity and form. How can they be saved from this fate?

These are important aspects relating to the life of words. We shall discuss these questions in due course, but meanwhile, let us turn our glance and look at their more embryonic, radical forms and see what they have to teach us.