Behind the Dictionary

Lexicographers Talk About Language

The Hidden Lives of Words is something of an institution on the Internet, an online community started by computer-engineer-turned-linguist Anu Garg back in 1994 that now reaches more than 600,000 subscribers in 200 countries with its daily A.Word.A.Day newsletter. This email is more than just a new word every day: Anu also adds a daily, delicious quote from his extensive literary readings to inspire, challenge -- and surprise -- us. The Visual Thesaurus is proud to sponsor A.Word.A.Day and delighted to speak with Anu about his own, latest, book, on "the hidden lives and strange origins of words" entitled, The Dord, the Diglot, and an Avocado or Two. Our conversation:

VT: What motivated you to highlight the stories behind words?

Anu: There are so many words that we use every day and never wonder where they came from. But their stories are amazing. Since Halloween has just passed, let's talk about the candy that children eat, for example. Do you know where candy comes from? It's from Sanskrit, where candy means piece. There's a whole chapter in my book that features food-related words and their origins.

VT: But some words aren't so clear cut. What about words that evolved to mean the opposite of their original meaning?

Anu: You have to remember that words keep changing. It's like a flowing river. You can't step in the same river twice. You might not notice these changes over five years or ten years, but over a span of hundreds of years it's very easy to see how language changes. I dedicate a whole chapter to this in my new book.

Sometimes words go away, and at other times their meanings turn completely -- 180 degrees! For example, if you meet a friend on the street and say, "Nice tie," we take for granted what nice means. But if you were using this word 500 years ago, you would be saying stupid tie because that's what the word nice used to mean at the time. So, you see, words keep changing.

VT: Can you witness these changes right now?

Anu: Let's take a current example. If you see two teenagers walking along the street and one says to the other, "Man! That was bad," what are the chances that that is a negative word or a positive word? Most likely, what they were saying is "that was cool." Right now, depending on the context, bad has a negative connotation. But who knows, it's possible that in fifty years bad will mean "excellent."

VT: It could become possible that bad will mean excellent.

Anu: Right now the slang meaning is positive but the "official" dictionary meaning is negative. But it's possible that in -- all -- contexts it might mean something positive.

VT: So we may be witnessing teenagers giving birth to a whole new meaning of the word right before our eyes?

Anu: Definitely. I have a ten year old daughter and once I dropped her off to school and overheard her saying to her friends, "Hey, that was disgusting." It was clear, though, that she was talking about something that was really nice.

VT: But she called it "disgusting."

Anu: Yes, that's how slang happens. Kids try to change meaning. They try to have their own code language with some of these terms of slang. If you really want to see what shape a language is taking, you've got to pay attention to slang, and you've got to pay attention to kids and teenagers talking.

Right now, we all frown when we hear somebody say, "Um, I was like, 'Hey, you can't do that.' 'And he goes . . .'" This sounds like teenager talk, right? But who knows, it might become standard language in a few hundred years.

VT: Amazing.

Anu: Take another example, the word "silly." About 700 years ago, "silly" used to mean "blessed." Now it means almost the opposite.

VT: That's so interesting. Like you said, we're wading through that river of language. And we don't know how it's going to change or what's going to happen.

Anu: Irrespective of what the grammarians or language pundits say, nobody can really control the language. Language takes its own winding path. And language is a democratic thing. You, I -- anybody who speaks the language -- has a vote in how the language develops. You might write letters to the editor complaining about some particular use in a newspaper article, but it really doesn't matter much. Language works organically.

I have a whole chapter in my book called "You Have Changed," and it's about words that have taken sharp turns along the path of history.

VT: What else do you cover in the book?

Anu: One of my favorite chapters is about Charles Dickens. He was such a prolific author, he wrote many, many novels. His specialty was naming his characters. A lot of his characters have entered the language and become words, like fagin, bumbledom and stiggins. And of course, scrooge. Scrooge is more common among these, meaning, of course, a miser.

VT: Lewis Carroll also contributed words to the language, too.

Anu: His specialty was coining new words by blending existing words. So, for example, his word chortle comes from chuckle and snort.

Blending is one of the ways new words come into language. You can borrow words from other languages, combine two words, or just take a word and add a new meaning to it. I have a section in my book which talks about words like "Google" and "Yahoo." If I ask how old the word google is, most people guess it's been around for about ten years. But, in fact, google has been in the language for about a hundred years.

VT: Really?

Anu: Today, when you say I'm going to google something, you're going to search for it online. But earlier -- you're familiar with cricket -- in cricket, a googly ball is one which looks like it's going in one direction but ends up in another. So, that was a sense of google.

VT: How did they go from that to naming the search engine?

Anu: The founders of Google got the name Google from another word, googol, which is a word to describe a very large number, a one followed by a hundred zeroes. The story is there was a mathematician named Edward Kasner and he needed a word to describe a large number. So, he asked his nephew, a nine-year-old boy named Milton, and out of nowhere, Milton said, "How about googol?" Edward liked the word, used it, and it became popular, and entered the dictionary. Now, when the Google founders were looking for a word to name their engine they decided to go with the word googol, respelled as Google, because that would imply that they have googols of pages indexed in their search engine.

VT: What's your next book going to be about?

Anu: It will be about words, of course. The English language has the largest vocabulary of any language, and any living language keeps growing and being replenished. New words come in the language -- new terms needed to describe innovations in cultural content. So there is no dearth of words to explore and write about.

Click here to read more articles from Behind the Dictionary.

Anu Garg's Books
Anu recommends books on language and words.
Word Lovin' Iconoclast
An interview about the irrepressible word inventor Gelett Burgess.
Neologism Alarm
Beware the neologism!