Friday, March 04, 2011

A word for these kinds of words

From the Jan 22 issue of New Scientist's "Feedback" column:
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.

Mike Meakin responds by telling us that in the hospital where he works, several young colleagues only know of "Big Brother" through the reality TV show. They have no knowledge of George Orwell or 1984.

Anetta Pirinen, on the other hand, says she knew something significant had happened in her mind the day the word "Homer" stopped being a Greek poet and took on the meaning of a cartoon character.
John LaFreniere asks how it is possible to "dial" a number on a cellphone.
Abby Stancliffe-Vaughan says that her infant daughter once announced with joy that she would be able to call the rest of the family from her bedroom. No one understood what she meant until they realised she was responding to an earlier conversation about putting a "mobile" - meaning a hanging decoration, as opposed to a cellphone - in her room.
What about a name for this phenomenon? It doesn't seem to have one, though there is a name, "retronym", for the original meaning of a word. "Biological viruses" in the first paragraph of this story is a retronym.
Readers sent us several suggestions. We particularly liked "vironym", proposed in honour of Alastair's tale by "Chainsaw" on the US National Puzzlers League mailing list, after Feedback reader Dick Plotz had appealed for suggestions there.
Then there was Andrew Ross, who suggests "uragnosia" - pronounced, he says, "you-rag-nose ear". This derives from the prefix "ur" (denoting origin) and the noun "agnosia" (more familiar in its adjectival "agnostic" form), so it means ignorance as to origin.
We also liked the suggestion of a friend with a penchant for neologisms. He notes that the new uses of these words have "split off" from the original meaning and taken on an identity of their own. He proposes "meionym", in honour of the division of a cell into distinct gametes, or "meiosis".


Anonymous said...

"her infant daughter once announced with joy"

What definition of 'infant' are you using? By the usual definition (which is like 'baby' only more so), a child old enough to announce anything is not an infant.

Anonymous said...

Oh, sorry. Missed the fact you were quoting from New Scientist. Strange they'd misuse the word 'infant', though.

The Ridger, FCD said...

Ummm. "His infant daughter" can be a toddler to me (though it's not my first thought). Merriam-Webster's Unabridged says

1 a : a child in the first year of life : BABY b : a child several years of age
2 a : a person who is not of full age : MINOR b common law : a person under the age of 21 -- see AGE 3
3 Britain : a pupil in an infant school

So 'misuse' is strong, eh?

The Ridger, FCD said...

Is there a word for this kind of coincidence: I'm reading a book of stories written in 1911 and set in western Virginia in 1840-1875 or so (no actual dates, but in some stories the Civil War hasn't happened yet and in others it has). In one, a girl of 18 or 19 is described for a legal document as "infant". I'm sure we'd say "minor" today. It struck me, since I'd just seen this!

Anonymous said...

Coming to this rather late but infant was used as a catch-all as she was still in a cot but between one and three years old. My kids spoke eloquently very early and the youngest one mentioned here was particularly adept at complicated concepts frightening a lady we met out when just over one year of age by answering "yes green grapes" when the lady noted that she was eating grapes. I don't think this woman thought she could even speak let alone respond coherently!