New meanings for old words

At first, screen time referred to the amount of time someone appeared in front of a camera in a movie but now it means the time an individual spends in front of the screen of his mobile phone or computer

By Shashi Tharoor

Published: Thu 27 Jan 2022, 8:25 PM

English is famously a language that is constantly remaking itself, changing and adapting to new developments, absorbing words from a wide variety of sources. One of its interesting characteristics is how words that have seemingly settled meanings sometimes acquire additional, and often wholly different, meanings.

Take a word as innocuous as snowflake. We all know the word, it falls from the sky — but now it is also used to mean “someone regarded or treated as unique or special” and/or “someone who is overly sensitive”. Similarly, aviation buffs are familiar with tailwind and headwind, but these words are now used figuratively as well in ways that have nothing to do with aircraft — a tailwind is a force or influence that helps one to succeed, while a headwind impedes or hinders progress. And every child knows the story of Goldilocks, who preferred her porridge to be neither too hot nor too cold — but few realise her fairytale has been borrowed by astronomers to describe “an area of planetary orbit in which temperatures are neither too hot nor too cold to support life”.

A particularly striking development in contemporary English has been the creation of new compound terms, made up of two or more ordinary and familiar words to now mean something that neither word by itself does. For instance, everyone knows the words “page” and “view”, but page view, as a compound word, means something more, referring to a user viewing an individual page on a website. Similarly with “screen” and “time”, which has undergone not one but two compound mutations. At first, screen time referred to the amount of time someone appeared in front of a camera in a movie — “that promising actor didn’t get enough screen time in this film” — but now it means the time an individual spends in front of the screen of his mobile phone or computer (“You’ve had too much screen time, your eyes will hurt”).

The world of computer technology has contributed its share of neologisms to our English. “Deep” and “fake” have obvious meanings, but a deepfake is an image or recording that has been deliberately altered and manipulated to misrepresent someone as doing or saying something they didn’t actually do or say. Your might find “deepfakes” on the dark web, the sinister section of the Internet whose web pages cannot be indexed by search engines, are not viewable through a standard Web browser, require specialised software or a secret network configuration to access, and specifically attract criminal users by offering high levels of encryption and anonymity. It is also of interest to the deep state, a term originating in Turkey for a secret governmental network of military and security personnel operating beyond the bounds of the law and the control of the formal governmental apparatus.

The world of business has contributed many words to recent English whose meanings have changed from their earlier uses. A haircut is not just a grooming treatment but an action involving the reduction in value of an asset, as in “the bank took a haircut to settle a defaulting loan”. Vulture capitalism is a form of venture capitalism that aggressively purchases a distressed business with the intention of stripping its assets and selling them off at a profit, with no commitment to reviving the business itself. The gig economy refers to the use of temporary or freelance workers to perform jobs instead of hiring regular employees, giving them salaries and benefits and attendant security. These “gig workers” are on their own and vulnerable.

So, it seems, are fathers of a certain age, who are described as possessing dad bods, characterised by a thickening paunch and diminished muscularity, both allegedly typical of an average father. (We also tell Dad jokes, apparently, lame attempts at humour that are lost on our children’s generation). Perhaps we will soon be victims of cancel culture, the habit of ostracising someone as a way of expressing disapproval of his views and exerting social pressure to isolate him.

More on these new meanings for old words next week.

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