Archive for the ‘Keywords’ Category

Word Origin: Palace

It once was a house on an ashen hill


The one building that ignites our desires is the palace. Perhaps, it is the first structural term we learn—and we can thank our bed-time stories for that—way before we hear about the college, the factory or the skyscraper. No other edifice can match the grandeur associated with a palace. It stands for boundless wealth and power, for it’s the house where the royals reside.


Palace did not always mean the house of kings. The term originates from the name for one of the seven hills on which Rome stands, the Palatine Hill. Most houses of the early imperial Roman elite were built on this hill. Even after the city expanded over the other hills, Palatine remained the most desired place of residence. The first emperor of the Roman Empire, Augustus Caesar, chose to live on this hill. His residence was a modest place, just like many others in the neighbourhood. The only things that distinguished his house were the two laurel trees flanking the main door.



In 64 AD, an urban fire, now known as The Great Fire of Rome, burned down all the houses on the hills. With residences of all aristocrats turning to ashes, the then emperor Nero enlarged his house and gardens to cover the entire hilltop. Now that his ‘Golden House’ dominated the hill, Palatine, which was earlier the name of the neighbourhood, came to denote the house.


After some centuries, the term palace started being used for government. This usage can be first seen in the writings of historian Paul the Deacon in 790 AD. If we were to use this meaning in referring to the Robert Vadra case, we would say, “The UPA palace is shielding the Gandhi son-in-law.”


In the 9th century, palace was also used for the seats of governments, where affairs of the state were conducted. By that reckoning, today’s Parliament House would have been called a palace. Later, the residences of the electors of the Roman empire too were called palaces. The electors were next only to the Roman emperor, because it was they who would elect him from among the many kings. After Rome fell into decline, and monarchies rose all over Europe, the word was used to denote the residence of the monarch.


Much later, when Europe started colonising the rest of the world, palace began to be used for houses of kings almost everywhere. The use of English words in regional languages has led to the term being commonly used in India.


Many palaces have now been converted to hotels and museums, but still continue to retain the word palace in their names because it reinforces their prestige and heritage status, on which there’s a premium. Others, even when they are newly built or smaller in scale, add it to their names in the hope that it confers some of that prestige to their own more modest establishments.


Of course, there are also the small budget hotels, lodges and even marriage halls that have no qualms in using the word palace in their names. Perhaps there’s nothing that better illustrates the not-so-secret longing of the commoner for the romance and the splendour of the bygone days of royalty.


Word Origin: Bicycle

The simple invention that revolutionised transport


It may seem hard to believe today, but when the bicycle was invented, it constituted a major leap in technology. People didn’t have to depend on horses or carts, and could speed by on their own power. Flemish writer Stijn Streuvels writes that the new machine was like a revelation, and everyone wondered how something so simple had not been invented earlier.


The new contraption got different names in different countries. As it evolved, the names kept changing. Coined around 1868, the term bicycle itself was a replacement for original term velocipede. Though other names were introduced later, bicycle was the one that stuck.


Perhaps it is the simplicity of the term that has not let it fade away. It is a composite of bi, which means ‘two’, and cycle, meaning ‘circle’ or ‘wheel’. The word bicycle clearly implies that it is a vehicle with two wheels.


Many believe the word was coined by the French, and the British also take credit for it. To quote Streuvels, “The French, as always when they have to name something new, took a piece of Greek and a piece of Latin and stuck them together, giving us the ‘velocipede.’ For everyday use, however, this name proved too long and too cumbersome for something so speedy, and they shortened it to ‘velo.’ The English went about the task in their customary rational manner and came up with ‘bicycle,’ ‘wheel,’ or simply ‘cycle,’ which became the real name, the true name.”


David Perry in his book Bike Cult writes that bicycle appeared on an 1869 British velocipede patent by J I Stassen, and quickly gained popularity. “Bicycle (a two wheeled velocipede) became a root-word for an activity, such as bicycled, bicycling, and bicyclism (the art of bicycling), for a person, such as a bicycler, bicyclian and bicyclist, and for anything pertaining to or connected with the nature of bicycles, such as bicyclic, bicyclical, bicycular, and bicycle kick (in soccer, a kick made with both feet off the ground and moving the legs as if pedalling a bicycle),” he writes.


The naming and renaming of bicycles hasn’t stopped yet. Some years ago, the phrase Human Powered Vehicles (HPV) was formed for vehicles that could be driven with human energy. Of course, cycles are on top of the list. Not many use the phrase.


At a New York bike conference in 1989, cycling activist Mary Frances Dunham suggested a new name for motorfree vehicles, ‘morfs.’ “She described terramorfs as land vehicles, mermorfs for the water, airmorfs for flight, and ideomorfs propelled by thoughts,” Perry writes.


In Kannada slang, saikal hodeyodu (cycling) means ‘to tire from effort’. In everyday English usage, we have long ago dropped the bi and use just cycle. If we say bicycle, people may give us surprised looks, suggesting that we are from the last century. The word cycle too may soon fade away, with the cooler-sounding bike replacing it. Though bike is commonly used for cycles in the West, in India it is used mainly for motorcycles. With cycles coming back into fashion, it may not be long before we find an even more fashionable name for them.


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Word origin: Dam

There was a time when the rivers freely flowed. They meandered with all their grace and at places gushed with all their might. Many civilizations grew on their banks, for the rivers not only met their water needs, but also brought fertile soil. Despite all their goodness, they sometimes turned destructive. They flooded lands and razed towns, and destroyed the very things that they helped build. It was as if the rivers had a will of their own.


Then, men thought of controlling the rivers. They built barriers on their paths, stopped their flow, stored the waters and diverted them. These were built at different parts of the world, in different ages, and called with varying names. The one name that became popular in all languages was the Dutch word Dam.

Kirshnaraja Sagar (KRS) Dam


The word entered the English language in the 14th century. The word was first used for the body of water that was confined by a barrier. For instance, the Cauvery water stored in KRS, would be called dam, and not KRS. Later, the word was stopped being used for the stored water and was applied to barrier. This changed meaning is still in use. For now, we call KRS a dam and not the water stored in it.


Coming back to the Dutch, the dams were vital for their survival, since Netherlands is a low lying country. Dams were built to regulate the water level and prevent the sea from entering marsh lands. These dams often marked the beginning of the city. The dams also gave their names to the city. This can be seen in the name of the Dutch capital Amsterdam. It gets its name from the dam through the Amstel River, built in the 12th century.  As the dam continued to be built and strengthened over the centuries, it grew wide enough to become the town square and was called the Dam square. It turned into the hub of commercial and government activity. Though the mouth of the Amstel River is filled, and the now the Dam Square is covered with land, the name stuck to it. Another Dutch city Rotterdam too got its name from the dam through the river Rotte.


The earliest known dam in the world is the Jawa Dam in Jordon built around 3000 BC. It held back waters of a stream and diverted it for irrigation. Evidence also exists of an earlier dam Sadd-el-Kafara built by the ancient Egyptians 2650 BC, for flood control. The dam is believed to be under construction for 10-12 years, before being destroyed by a flood.


The world’s oldest dam, still in use is across the Cauvery, in Trichi in Tamil Nadu. The Kallanai dam or the Grand Anicut was built around the 2ndcentury AD by the Chola king Karikalan.  It was constructed to store water and regulate it for irrigation through canals in the delta region. The dam splits the river Kaveri into four streams; Kollidam Aru, Kaviri, Vennaru and Puthu Aru. Built with unhewn stones, the dam runs a length of 1080 feet and is 60 feet wide. The British made later additions and improvements to it, which has helped to keep it functioning.

Word Origin: Android

We have all heard the word android. Google made a huge splash when they launched the operating system Android for mobiles and tablets. Though many mobile companies launched Android phones, Samsung created a wave with its Galaxy series which posed stiff competition to Apple. All this has made us think that Android is the new tech word, coined by perhaps Google. But this idea is wrong.


The word Android was in existence about 1000 years ago and means ‘like man.’ It is formed by the Greek words ‘andro’ meaning man and ‘eides’ meaning ‘form or shape.’ In the 12th century St Albertus Magnus created an automaton which was like a human and called it android. In modern terms, we can say that he created the first robot. Yes, Android was the name of the first robot.

Though St Albertus is now regarded as one of the greatest scientist, people in his era thought of him as a magician and alchemist. Literature of his time says that he used angels from the netherworld and the powers of the philosopher’s stone to create metals and material unknown to this world. He then chose the metals according to the stars and planets. With them he built the android. Some reports say this automaton, for which St Albertus worked for thirty years, could speak, think and some believe that it even had a soul. This invention wasn’t to live long. St Albertus’ student St Thomas Aquinas destroyed it, for he thought it was a tool of satan and blasphemous.


With this origin, no doubt the word was later used for things like robots, before the term robot took over. Android finds mentions in US Patents in as early as 1863, with reference to small human-like toy automatons. It was popularised in 1886, by French author Auguste Villiers de I’Isle-Adam in his science-fiction book, The Future Eve. The story is about a fictional scientist Edison who builds a mechanical woman called Halady. The android Halady is not only beautiful, but is also intelligent and has a strong personality. Another character Lord Ewald is close to suicide because of his fiancé Alicia Clary, who he says is physically perfect but is emotionally and intellectually empty. It is then that Edison suggests the idea of an android to Ewald. The scientist creates Halady, who looks exactly like Alicia, but is without her personality. Ewald falls in love with the android and goes away with her. Before they can get home, the ship they are travelling in sinks, killing Ewald and destroying the android, Halady.

Jack Williamson


Later English science-fiction writers used the term starting with Jack Williamson, who used the term in his 1936 series The Cometeers, published as a series in a magazine, and later made into a novel. But in 1921, the word robot was introduced by Karel Capek in his play, ‘Rossum’s Universal Robots. This term was used in place of androids.


Now, there is a distinction between androids and robots. This distinction was brought by Edmond Hamilton’s sci-fi series Captain Future. He said that mechanical automatons were robots, but those with flesh or resembling humans in performance were androids. For instance, the Rajnikanth look-a-like automaton in the Tamil film Endhiran, and Shahrukh Khan look-a-like in RaOne are androids. So is Robin William’s character in Bicentennial Man. But RoboCop who has a mechanical body and the likes are robots.

Coming back to the now popular meaning of android, which is the mobile operating system, it staretd in a small company called Android Inc, in California in 2003. Google acquired this company in 2005 and founded the Open Hnadset Alliance, a consortium of 86 hardware, software and telecommunications companies. Android was launched into the market in 2008.


Now, we know Android, by what Google has popularised it as. Philip K Dick, the author of Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep coined the word Andy. But we now know Andy as the little green man which is the icon of Android. The novelist wrote, “The basic tool for the manipulation of reality is the manipulation of words. If you can control the meaning of words, you can control the people who must use the words.” The tech companies seem to have achieved it to a great extent.

Word Origin: Awesome

What if we were to say God is awful? Some centuries ago, it would not be offensive. In fact, it would have been the most appropriate word to use. The story of words in the family of awe is, as we say these days, awesome!


The word awe entered the English language around the 13th century from the Old Norse word agi, meaning ‘fright’ or ‘terror’. The verb ‘to awe’ meant something that instils reverential wonder or fear.



The original meaning of awful was ‘something full of awe’, or ‘something that needs to be respected and feared’. Only someone like God could be awful. Over the years the word was used so much, and even for trivial things, that it came to denote something really bad. Perhaps awful was used for something so bad that it made one fear or despise it. With awful losing its original meaning, a new word had to take its place. It was then that awesome was used in its place.


In fact, awesome entered the Oxford English Dictionary in 1598. Not surprisingly, back then, the meaning was different. Awesome meant someone feeling awe rather than someone inspiring it. It could have been used like this: ‘I saw the bolt of lightning, and I was awesome.’ In the 1630s, awestruck entered the dictionary, which denoted someone filled with reverential fear. It was not long before awesome could be used with a new meaning. In 1664, a Presbyterian sermoniser wrote, “The sight of his cross is more awesome than the weight of it.” This is the first recorded appearance of the word in its non-traditional meaning, according to journalist Robert Lane Greene, who wrote about it in More Intelligent Life magazine.


In 20th century translations of the Bible, awesome was used to describe God. There are many verses in the Old Testament where God is, well, awesome. For instance, Psalm 68 has a verse which says, “You are awesome, God, in your sanctuaries.”


In the meantime, the change in the usage of awesome had already begun. A 1980 bestseller The Official Preppy Handbook, a tongue-in-cheek guide to ‘preppy’ (American slang for graduate student) life, was one of the first to give sanction to the current usage of the word. It defined awesome as ‘terrific or great’. Within no time, this meaning took over, and soon was being used all over the US for anything remotely good.


Awesome in this new form, hit the Indian shores with the BPO industry. Along with their American accents, young trainees also picked up American words, with awesome being considered one of the trendier ones. Radio jockeys at the new FM stations started using the word frequently for anything even mildy good. These days, TV channels are using awesomeness to describe either themselves or their programmes, in an (awful!) attempt to make the noun form of the word stylish. But recently, an advertising campaign of a clothing brand had hoardings all over that used familiar buzzwords like dude, and awesome, but with ironic overtones, perhaps signalling that their cool quotient is now dipping.


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Word origin: Mouse

The thieving rodent that became an electronic device


The mouse, as we all know, is the vehicle of Ganesha in Indian mythology. Interestingly, the English word is derived from the Sanskrit word for mouse, mushaka. This Sanskrit word was is in turn derived from another word of the same lan- guage, mus, which means to steal. Since rodents steal food and grain from humans, they must have got the name. Old English too used mus, before the word became mouse in the 12thcentury.


The ancient Romans used mus for all rodents large and small. They differentiated between mice and rats with the usage of big and little. The mouse was called mus max- imus (big mouse) and the rat mus minimus(little mouse). Greek, Latin and Old Persian too use variations of mus.



In modern English, the word is often used for anything that resembles a mouse. In the 1800s,it was used in nautical jargon to refer to abulge of rope on a ship because it looked like a mouse. This bulge which prevented the ropes tied to mast from slipping away was also called the stay mouse. The word was later used to denote a black eye caused by a blow!


Mouse was used for a com- puter device in the 1960s. The first documented evidence for the use of mouse for the computer pointer is in Bill English’s 1965 publication, Computer Aided Display Control. Two years earlier, English had assisted Douglas Engelbart in inventing the device.


Since the invention resem- bled the mouse, they gave it the name. The earliest mouse was a block of wood with two wheels, three buttons on top and a wire which resembled the tail of a mouse. During a demo, Engelbart once said, “I don’t know why we call it a mouse. It started that way, and we never did change it.” He even called the cursor a bug, but this word didn’t become popular.


Engelbart has invented the mouse to help navigate through the oNLine System (NLS) a pre- cursor of the Internet. But his patent for the mouse expired before the device gained popularity in the 1980s. Engelbart didn’t get widespread recognition or royalties for his invention.


Engelbart’s assistant Bill English joined Xerox Corp and helped build the mouse there. Xerox became the first company to sell a computer with a mouse in 1981. The term mouse for the device became part of the English language only in 1984, when Apple made it standard equip- ment with its original Macintosh. With the introduction of Microsoft Windows and the advent of the Internet, the word entered common parlance.


Mouse has now become an integral part not only of English but all languages. Many of us may not be able to distinguish between a rat and a mouse, but we surely know the difference between a keyboard and a mouse.


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Origin of the suffix ‘-gate’

Those who have been following the news closely know by now that ‘Coalgate’ has nothing to do with the toothpaste. In the same way, Porngate does not refer to a gate which opens into a place where porn is legally available.


The usage of gate implies that it is synonymous with a scam. These days it could mean any scam, irrespective of the magnitude. But when it was first used, it was meant to indicate an episode in American politics that had grave repercussions.


The suffix owes its origin to the Watergate scandal in 1972 in the United States, which led to the ouster of that nation’s president. Watergate was the name of an office complex in Washington DC. It headquartered the Democratic National Committee.


The then president Richard Nixon was running for re-election. The Republican Party’s committee to re-elect the president had hired five men to break into the Democratic Party office in the Watergate complex. These men were arrested and indicted for conspiracy, burglary and violation of federal wiretapping laws. This proved to be just the beginning of the exposure of Nixon’s illegal acts, which eventually cost him his presidency.


In the elections, Nixon defeated his Democratic opponent George McGovern to return to power, but the investigations that followed the Watergate break-in pulled him down. It was revealed that Nixon’s staff had commissioned and executed illegal acts, and were guilty of campaignfraud, political espionage and sabotage, break-ins, improper tax audits and unauthorised wiretapping. The Washington Post carried a spate of articles on the investigations and attributed them to an anonymous source they called Deep Throat.


After two years of investigation, Nixon and his aides were implicated. Nixon resigned in August 1974, the only US president to resign from office.From then on the suffix gate has been appended to scams and scandals. It was used by the National Lampoon magazine in 1973 for a satirical story about an imagined Russian scandal, which the writer called Volgagate


Nixon’s former speech writer William Safire is said to have popularised the use of -gate. Safire was also a New York Times columnist, grammarian and lexicographer, and used the suffix indiscriminately in his columns for all scandals large and frivolous. Some suspect that in doing so, Safire wanted to make all scandals sound as big as Watergate. In the process, he aimed at restoring Nixon’s image. His earliest use of -gate was in 1974 when he wrote of Vietgate, a proposed pardon of the Watergate criminals and Vietnam War draft dodgers. In a 1996 magazine piece, Noam Cohen assembled 20 -gates coined by Safire. Cohen wrote that Safire might have been “rehabilitating Nixon by relentlessly tarring his successors with the same rhetorical brush—diminished guilt by association.”


Writer and journalist Eric Alterman in his book Sound and Fury: The Making of Punditocracy, claims that Safire admitted to him to the intention of popularising – gate. As Alterman puts it, “Psychologically, he may have been seeking to minimise the relative importance of the crimes committed by his former boss with this silliness.”


Without doubt, Safire has succeeded. Nearly 40 years later, in India we continue to use -gate as shorthand for political scandals: Porngate for the incident where Karnataka MLAs were caught on camera watching sex videos while the assembly was in session. We also use it for scandals of bigger magnitude like with Coalgate, where a Comptroller and Auditor-General report has blamed the UPA government for not auctioning coal and causing losses of up to Rs 10.7 lakh crore to the exchequer.

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