No word for X

From the “Feedback” column of the NewScientist of January 22:

At the end of last year, Alastair Beaven asked if readers had examples of people using words in a novel sense without knowing their original meaning – and he wondered if this phenomenon has a name (25 December). He gave the example of an interpreter in Afghanistan who knew about viruses in computers, but not about biological viruses.

Other readers supplied examples of several other types: people who knew of “Big Brother” only through the reality tv show, not from George Orwell; someone who noted the moment when for her “Homer” “stopped being a Greek poet [she means stopped referring only to a Greek poet] and took on the meaning [she means the additional meaning, possibly the primary meaning] of a cartoon character”; someone who asked how it is possible to “dial” a number on a cellphone; a child who identified mobile ‘cellphone’ and mobile ‘hanging decoration’ (along these lines, a huge number of children, and some adults, identify gas ‘gasoline, petrol’ and gas ‘natural gas’, which is primarily methane).

These various examples hang together only loosely, some having to do with common nouns, some with proper names, some with actual ignorance of earlier meanings or referents, some with semantic split (with earlier uses maintained), some with metaphorical extensions into new domains (with, in some cases, loss of knowledge about the earlier domains), some with the identification of earlier distinct items because of phonological identity or similarity.

Several names were suggested: vironym for an instance, uragnosia (ur ‘original’ + agnosia ‘ignorance’) for the phenomenon, meionym for a new use of a word that has “split off” from the original meaning (cf. meiosis).

Now, although all the contributors framed things in terms of “original” vs. “novel” or “new” uses, historical originality is not of course at issue, but only historical precedence, and then only in the contributors’ personal experience. (People not infrequently get the actual historical sequence backwards; in many cases they have no idea about this sequence; and hardly anyone without highly specialized knowledge can have any idea of the uses of words when the words entered the language — nor should they.)

Uragnosia is in fact the ground state of human nature.

What people are remarking on when they talk about ignorance of the “original” meanings is just that they think others should know about earlier meanings. It’s not just that others are ignorant — we are all, deeply, and necessarily — ignorant (‘not knowing’) about such things — but that their these people are in some way culpably ignorant, not just literally ignorant (in the, twist of the knife, original sense of ignorant), but stupid, unable to learn, about things they should know.

The first question in each such case is whether the knowledge would be a benefit. Would it be helpful to someone to know that earlier phones had dials, and that that’s why people talk about “dialling” on cellphones? Probably not, though the fact is of cultural interest, a fascinating fact. Would it be helpful to someone to know that there are biological viruses as well as computer viruses, who cares which term came first? Almost surely: biological viruses are important in the modern world. (In this case, the “original” sense is not nearly so important as a salient alternative sense that it would be useful to know about.)


6 Responses to “No word for X”

  1. Mar Rojo Says:

    How would you feel and what would be your response if you were referring to the works of the Greek Homer, as in “I simply adore Homer.”, and the listener replied with “Me too. he’s hilarious.”?

    • arnold zwicky Says:

      That was not the situation described, which was that the correspondent reported thinking of Homer Simpson first, while still being aware of the Greek Homer. But the situation you’ve painted could certainly happen. There would be two parts to this treatment of “Homer”: (1) the speaker is ignorant of a cultural reference, namely the existence of a Greek poet Homer; (2) the speaker is aware of another cultural reference, namely the existence of a tv cartoon character Homer (Simpson). So the speaker interprets someone else’s reference to “Homer” in the only way available to them. But no words have changed in meaning.

      Ignorance of cultural references is all over the place. In my writing and lecturing, I’m often startled to discover that I have to explain cultural references that I’d been taking for granted — for instance, who James Thurber was, or what the Industrial Revolution was. But at root that’s ignorance of facts, not ignorance of word meanings (though of course we can talk about the facts only by using words).

      There are borderline cases. For instance, I’ve come across a fair number of undergraduates who understand ancient times to refer to times that are far in the past in relation to their own experiences, so taking in everything from the 19th century and before. They’re using their sense of ancient ‘very old, far in the past’, in ignorance of the fact that the word has a more specific sense, to refer to “the period of history before the fall of the Western Roman Empire” (OED), in contrast to medieval and modern.

      What makes this example especially interesting is that the less specific sense is the older one and continues in use after the appearance of the specialized sense (which the OED has first in Bacon’s Advancement of Learning in 1605).

  2. The Ridger Says:

    There is an Agatha Christie novel in which the murderer is caught out at least partly because when someone at dinner refers to “the judgement of Paris” she takes it to be a fashion reference and responds by talking about Milan.

    But honestly, how is one “supposed” to feel if someone takes a reference in an equally plausible but unintended direction? I mean, unless you’d been specifically discusses ancient Greece or epic poetry, “I love Homer” is as ambiguous as “I love Berlin” – Irving or the city?

  3. The Ridger Says:

    I also remember seeing a book jacket on the historical novel Hypatia saying it was “Ancient Egypt”. Ahem. 4th century AD is “ancient” but not “Ancient Egypt”.

  4. Mar Rojo Says:

    I’m also wondering what part register plays in all this. In my example, I would read “I absolutely love x” as a tad formal, because of the addition/collocation of what I see as a relatively formal adverb – when used in conversation. So, being aware of both Homers, I imagine I’d read “I absolutely love Homer.” as referring to the Greek guy. On the other hand, if I heard “For me, Homer rocks.”, I would automatically think of Homer Simpson. I dunno. Am I waffling?

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