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Another oldie but goodie.


My regular readers will have gathered by now that I’m enamoured of the English language. There are many reasons for my enduring love affair. Examples? For one thing it’s stuffed full of homophones, which lead so easily to puns and wordplay. It’s a language that evolves rapidly, unlike say French where the die-hard purists are fighting a vicious rearguard action against terms such as le parking. The French don’t have a word for parking, but the traditionalists are damned if they’re going to like the idea of a word being adopted from another language, particularly English. English even has words that are have two diametrically opposite meanings. Cleave is one example. It can mean to split apart and to join together, can’t it? That’s a tricky concept for non-native speakers.

I sometimes think that English can be best described in terms that metallurgists use. Yes, I do really think that way, so forgive my mild eccentricity. Metallurgists have lots of interesting terms. Malleable , a word itself derived from the Latin malleus, meaning a hammer, means you can hit metals and change their shape. You can do that with words. Ductile means you can stretch them into thin wires. Yes, there’s a parallel there. They conduct well. The sole purpose of English, indeed any language, is to conduct, to transmit meaning.

Metals are generally solid, as is formal English. But under the right conditions they become fluid. Same with English. Suddenly you get street slang and patois where sick and bad mean good.  To go back to the dual meanings idea, Mother******  can be a term of endearment or a dire insult.

Metals will form alloys and amalgams, Take two different metals, treat them a bit roughly, and a whole new entity appears, with different properties from the two or more formation elements. In linguistic terms, one of my favourites is virtual reality. The actual meaning is complete fantasy. Virtual reality is completely unreal.

English is highly magnetic. If a word for something doesn’t exist, but there’s a perfectly good word or phrase in another language, we welcome the foreign term with open arms, give it a cup of tea, and sit it down by the fire. Schadenfreude. Esprit d’escalier. Sputnik.

Science and technology have been very rich veins for mining the ore of the English metal. Gremlin. Debug. Glitch. Broadband. Geek. Hacker. I think this is very cool indeed.

My favourite technology-related neologism is one that was transformed from an original meaning by way of technology. In passing its spelling was changed too. But there’s a word you use every day, I guarantee that, that would not have existed without a technological leg-up.

It’s the word Hello. It only sprang into existence with the advent of the telephone, so many thanks to good old Alexander Graham Bell. It truly did not exist until people had to figure out how to answer the telephone. I’m not making this up.

It’s a corruption, a corrosion in metallurgical terms, of an old hunting word, Hallo. This had been around for centuries in the form View! Hallo! meaning the quarry had been sighted, and was meant to sound like the cry of a hunting horn. Hence the early reference to the famous huntsman John Peel. Later it was adopted more generally as a word signifying surprise. Hallo? meant ‘Well bugger me.’

When people started to take phone calls, they were often surprised and startled by the ringing of the bell, and said Hallo? Over time, this changed to Hello? which was still an interrogative form. It slipped into common parlance as the non-interrogative Hello as a simple greeting. It’s only been around since the beginning of the 20th century.

It’s hard not to lie a language as adaptable as English, isn’t it?