The Word Nerd: Exploring the ever-changing and evolving meanings of words

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Senior Times reader Shirley Skeans Newell asks, “Can you give me your interpretation of the word “triangulation”?

Yes, there is the old geometric definition but in psychiatric circles nowadays, it has interpretations.

It can signify gossip as in two people talking about a third person or it is a situation in which a third party tries to mediate between two persons, i.e., a counsellor.

While “triangulation” may have been born in the field of geometry, it has acquired other meanings, as Ms. Newell correctly states.

Aside from the psychological ones she mentioned, the term is used in politics to refer to a process of positioning oneself politically between traditional right-wing and left-wing positions. This coinage is attributed to Dick Morris, a one-time adviser to former US President Bill Clinton.

Many words from the fields of mathematics and sciences have been co-opted by other fields and this sometimes raises the hackles of “originalists.” Some years ago I wrote a column characterizing Silicon Valley as the “epicenter” of technology and received an angry letter informing me that the term should only be applied to “the point on the surface of the earth that overlies the subterranean focus of an earthquake.”

I answered my scold by writing that while the geologic sense of earthquake was the original meaning of the word when it was coined in the 19th century, by the 20th century the word acquired the general meaning of “focal point” as in expressions such as “Paris is the epicenter of the fashion industry.”

Similarly, French-born American historian Jacques Barzun disliked the usage of “synergy” to refer to the merging of two corporations claiming that the true meaning of the word is “a greater effect than the sum of the efforts.”

Actually, it has been used in physiology since the mid 19th century to refer to the working together of a group of bodily organs such as nerve-centres or muscles.

But before this it had a more general sense. In 1660, the OED sports this citation: “They speak only of such a Synergie … as makes men differ from a senseless stock, or liveless statua, in reference to the great work of his
own conversion.”

The borrowing of terms from science and mathematics is hardly new. The original meaning of “galaxy” was “a luminous band … encircling the heavens irregularly, and known to consist of innumerable stars.”

And the OED sports a citation with this sense in 1398. But by the year 1590 the word was being used to describe a crowd of beautiful women.

Similarly, the word “eclipse” was first used to describe a celestial event in 1300, but by 1526 it was used to describe “the periodical obscuration of the light from a light-house” and by 1711 to “a fraudulent device in dice-playing.” By the early 18th century it began to be used as a verb meaning “to surpass.” Similarly, “parameter” has transcended its mathematical genesis.

While the original 17th century OED definition refers to “the proportional to any given diameter and its conjugate,” by the 20th century, however, it had been used often by the mathematically-challenged to mean any fact or circumstance that limits how something is done.

Some years ago, authors Lara Stein and Benjamin Yoskovitz in The Buzzword Bingo Book mocked the usage of “algorithm” to mean “any tested, methodical approach to getting from A to Z. We used to call this a plan.” But what we have here is a generalization process where a problem-solving procedure for answering strictly mathematical conundrums is extended to solving any problem. In any case the OED relates that the strictly mathematical sense was co-opted by the medical profession in the late 1960s to refer to a “step-by-step procedure for reaching a clinical decision or diagnosis, often set out in the form of a flow chart, in which the answer to each question determines the next question to be asked.”

It is said that a little knowledge is a dangerous thing, and this maxim holds true in misconceptions about the
meaning of words.

Some people cling to the curious belief that change somehow takes us away from the “true” meaning of words.

This belief, often called the etymological fallacy, is clearly absurd. Its retention would posit that only stone buildings can be dilapidated because of the etymology from the Latin, lapis, meaning “stone” and that only men can possess virtue, because the word comes from the Latin virs, “man.”

Associated with this belief is a “professional” fallacy where people in certain professions object to the way their specialized words are co-opted by the masses.

Keep those letters coming.

Richler’s latest book Wordplay: Arranged and Deranged Wit was published last year.

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