We use language in ways that we don’t realise

We use language in ways that we don’t realise
Written by Edward Fraser

A quick caveat: This is pub chat for those interested in language, and it begins with a question. 

We have a finite alphabet with limited sequential possibilities. So, how does our finite vocabulary accommodate a potentially infinite world?  

Technology, for example, constantly exceeds expectations and surpasses boundaries, but it does not surpass our ability to talk about it. We can always find new words for new things. We do that by using certain techniques – some obvious, some not so.  

The forgotten origins of acronyms

Acronyms save us the embarrassment of fluffing unmanageable sequences of words. At least that’s what I think they’re for. But often we forget, or never know, where they came from.

The world of computing and electronics has the most obvious uses. Radar, for example, stands for radio, detecting and ranging. The origins of radar, however, are no longer needed to understand the word, which means it has become independent.

Here are some more independent acronyms. 

URL – uniform resource locator

ATM – automated teller machine

JPEG – joint photographic experts group

Star Trek: the metaphorical extension 

A high volume of new objects and occurrences don’t necessarily cause our vocabulary to grow in volume. Sometimes it’s simply extended. Being lazy, as we are, when language doesn’t have the right word for one purpose we extend the meaning of another.  

For instance, the mechanical crane got its name referring the long-necked crane bird, which derived its name from the Old English word cran – used to describe the hoarse song of the bird itself.

An interesting area of metaphorical extension was founded at sea. Nautical vocabulary is used daily in new realms, like space travel. Captain Kirk travelled with the vessels of the Star-ship Enterprise, complete with deck, hull and cabin. 

Don’t you think it’s strange to be floating and sailing through space with no water, wind or a sail?

What I find interesting about this is; although both sets of technology are worlds apart, we perceive enough similarities to take one set of vocabulary and completely re-use it. Simply put, the fact we surf and navigate the web means we’re good at getting a good bang for our verbal buck.

There you have it.


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