Living with the Truth Stranger than Fiction This Is Not About What You Think Milligan and Murphy Making Sense

Thursday, 30 August 2007

The miracle of language

I don’t get language. I know a lot of words though I’m always a little wary of dropping most of the big ones into conversation not out of any lack of confidence but because they don’t belong in conversational English. Take a word like borborygmia for example (the sound of wind moving through your digestive tract), it’s a lovely word but what’s the point in using it if you have to explain it?

I was having a quiet spot at work today and, as I do, I was pondering why we use the term ‘paragraph’ to describe a distinct division of text. The ‘graph’ bit I got – from graphein “to write” – but what did the prefix ‘para’ mean? I thought about parachute, paramount, paraplegic, Paraguay – okay maybe not Paraguay – but I couldn’t figure it out and I didn’t have a computer to hand.

Now I see it comes from the Greek paragraphos, "short stroke in the margin marking a break in sense," and that makes sense, some sense. Maybe one day I’ll look up the history of the written word and see if what I think is right. I don’t really need to know. Words change their meanings. I see that all the time. My wife will ask me if I’ve ‘taped’ such-and-such on TV but what she means is have I set the DVD recorder to save the programme on the machine’s hard drive, but, “Did you set the tape?” works just fine.

But back to work. I happened to mention what was going through my mind to the girl next to me. More fool me. I’ve only known her a week but that was long enough to find out that her favourite film was Zoolander the only author she ever mentioned was John Grisham and she’d never heard of Waiting for Godot so why was I so amazed when she showed no interest at all in the question?

Like I said at the start, I don’t get language but that’s never stopped me being fascinated by it. I don’t get childbirth and I’ve witnessed it. I know a lot of words but I really don’t understand that much about any of them. Thank God for my readers to help me out.

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