Final Word

Technology catapult dictionary with new words

Hindsight.jpg

World-wide dictionaries are battling to keep up with a catapult attack from technology hurling new words, terms, and new meanings of old words (terms), at them.

The tendency of technology to create new words, and terms, is nothing new. Catapult, itself can be traced back to antiquity – the first catapult being invented around 400 BC. Greek historian Diodorus Siculus first documenting it in 399 BC as a mechanical arrow, called ballista, used as a defence weapon against raiding armies.

It was an adaption of the technology involved in the working of the crossbow and was originally called a gastraphete.

Catapult, as a noun arrived in English in the 1570s from Middle French’s catapulte and directly from Latin’s catapulta, meaning ‘war machine for throwing.’ Latin in turn got it from Greek’s katapeltes, from kata (against) and pallein (to toss, or hurl.)

Over the years, in keeping with technological development, it also found new applications and by 1927 became used for an airplane-launching device on naval aircraft-carrier. By 1928 it was also used in the transitive sense as in catapulted, and catapulting.

What is technology?

Maybe we should just also take a look at what technology is, and where thát word comes from.

The word comes from two Greek transliterated words, techne– meaning art, skill, craft, or the way, manner, or means by which a thing is gained or achieved – and logos, meaning the utterance by which inward thought is expressed, a saying, or an expression. So, literally, technology means words or discourse about the way things are gained, or achieved.

In short, technology is the process of creating value added results from various elements like energy, information/knowledge, and material matter, and/or objects to achieve those results.

Successive technological ages

Throughout history successive technologies dominated over periods, each making their own contributions to our vocabulary. Just think of to steamroller something, and venting your frustrations by letting off steam from the so-called ‘steam age.’

Earlier, in the late 14th century, we first got the word pencil from an artist's fine brush of camel hair. And since art is involved, there is the Old French word, pinceau, from Latin’s penicillus, meaning 'paintbrush, pencil', or 'little tail', as a diminutive of peniculusor 'brush', which itself a is a diminutive of penis, which means 'tail.'

The graphite-core tool, or implement we today commonly call a pencil, used for writing and making drawings, came around in the 16th century as a technological development of that time.

From another discipline of more modern times, ophthalmology, came the term ‘to have twenty-twenty vision, and the proverb hindsight is 20/20 vision comes from the development of vision test types, first invented by the German ophthalmologist Heinrich Kuechler in 1843. In 1862 a Dutch ophthalmologist published his work Optotypi ad visum determinandum, the first visual chart based on "Optotypes", advocating the need for standardized vision tests.

Today the standardisation is based on the findings that an average individual has optimal vision of an object when 20 feet away from it. If you have 20/30 vision, it is worse than average. If you have 20/5 vision – a very unlikelihood – your vision is equal to that of what might be found in a hawk.

Like is the case with most words, and terms, coming to us from technology, 20/20 over time also acquired figurative meaning – in this instance, perfect vision or -insight.

From the development of telecommunications technology, we got words like cable/s, which were laid under the ocean for long-distance telegraphic, and then telephonic communication. For security reasons, diplomatic communications had separate cables. This in turn gave us the term diplomatic cable for confidential or secret messages between governments, irrespective of how or via whatever technology it is delivered.

Electronic age

The development of the electronic age we now live in, made a relatively slow start towards the middle of the previous century with the appearance of the first computers. It however, quite quickly developed into the age of the internet and the so-called digital age, and then the age of social media and the ‘internet’ of things and its instantaneous communication and availability of information.

On the language front it has globally confronted society with a never-ending catapulting of not only new words and terms, but also of new meanings of some of the oldest ones.

A good example is avatars, the term nowadays used our digital incarnations. The word arrived in English during the 18th century from ancient Sanskrit’s avatara, where it described the descent of a god from the heavens into earthly form.

The presently very popular hashtag (#) appeared in the 1920s in the USA as the sign for weight in pounds. It got new meaning in the 1960s when the Bell Telephone company adopted it as the generic function symbol on their new touch-tone phones.

However, in most recent years, on the back of especially the social media platform Twitter, its use exploded as function code for social media interaction.

Final word

The extent to which we are being catapulted with new words, acronyms, and new meanings for old ones – making it virtually impossible (pun intended) for conventional dictionaries to keep up – the Official Scrabble Players Dictionary in 2014 added 5 000 new words to its pages. It did not only include hashtag, but also words like selfie and texter.

I’m not sure if words like WhatsApp has made it to that list. What I’m sure is not there, or in any Afrikaans dictionary, is a word used in my own family for someone who is forever typing on their smartphone (another new word), a vingerkletser, which could be translated to a finger chatterbox.

by Piet Coetzer

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Final Word

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