Evolution is intriguing. The process is sure to ‘think outside the box’ while solving problems. Solutions that are unimaginably bizarre are always considered. The phenomenon is not limited to biology but also manhandles human ideas as well, including language.
Words are changing fast, and evolution has been divining brilliant ways to make our words more useful to us. In this Darwinian game, words must please our desire to express ourselves more completely and more concisely to thrive. Like cells grouping to form a body, over the years, simple, literal words have joined forces to create wonderfully complex and meaningfully figurative superwords. I propose that we do not just use these words, but gaze at them as we gaze at the stars.
Take the word distract for instance. This is a superword. Two words, dis and tract, literally meaning, to take off and a path created for some purpose, ingeniously join forces to allow us a way of saying, to catch someone’s attention, amuse someone or make someone uneasy, all with one utterance!
What a powerful metaphor; and how cute. This process works so seamlessly that when we use a word like distract we hardly even realize that it is a metaphor. Actually, we rarely ponder the literal meanings of the words we use. Sometimes, we cannot because much of the meaning is hidden in Latin or another distant language. But other times we can.
The more time goes by, the harder it will be for us to catch the literal meanings of our everyday speech. As words combine and evolve, their meanings not only change, but so do their sounds and spellings. Before it is too late, let us look at some more examples in an effort to see what we are literally saying to convey our meaning.
The word understand is composed of two literal words. Under and stand team up to give us such a useful metaphorical word, completely different than what either originally means. When you stand under something, you not only give it support, but may even be a part of it. And also, when things are above us, they are within our sight.
The word emergency works a little differently, but it is just as peculiar. It is just one word, with one literal meaning that got hijacked to have a whole new metaphorical meaning. The original word emerge really does not have the bad connotation that, “Emergency!” does. The next time you hear someone screaming emergency, help them, but also think about the literal word they are using to convey their meaning. Emergency Room: how poetic. What’s going to be happening in this room? Are events or objects going to be floating up from the floor? How would a foreigner interpret its meaning?
And what about the word submarine? How many nouns simply describe themselves rather than actually just state what they are? Or maybe this is how all nouns start, before they slowly change in sound and spelling to hide their origins and become something else.
On another note, we all know that Barack Obama is our president, but if we heard that he presides over the United States, it would sound quite weird. Sometimes, it is fun to pronounce words to reveal their literal intentions. The next time you let your dresser dress you, don’t ask it for clothing, demand for klawth-ing.
The word interesting is interesting. When we get absorbed in something, why do we say it is interesting? Literally the word means accumulating. I suppose that anything that is accumulating you would want to keep around, and it is also nice to keep things that are interesting around. Is this the connection?
Maybe thinking about where our words come from and how they work for us can give us greater insight into what we really mean or don’t mean when we open our mouths and vibrate our throats.
Here are some more of my favorite superwords to satisfy your appetite:
And what about the expression, where will we all wind up?