Computer

Every year a major dictionary will produce a list of words coined that year which have instantly attained currency. These words are often related to social, technological or political situations. Some will last; many will be forgotten in ten years, along with the circumstances of their usage.

Now think back to the 1650s and spare a thought for an editor when he, and it will be a he, read these words for the first time: holocaust, ambidextrous, literary, prairie, migrant, and computer. He would have needed explanatory notes to understand what they meant. Perhaps he thought to himself, “This buzzword is not an improvement and my printer is confused which is costing me more in print costs. And besides, computer is not very durable. It won’t last.”  Anyway, prairie is a French word, a meadow, so here it is English absorbing (stealing) words from elsewhere to fill a gap or augment choices.

Some of those words retain the initial meaning when Thomas Browne created them. Computer, though, has been transformed a lot. Even in the last 50 years computer signified something different to what we now refer to, and its definition then was of an electricity sub-station sized object. But those were the days when hardware was man’s work and software was written by women.

What is notable about Browne’s vocabulary is that he saw the need to make a word to describe and articulate his scientific work. He recognized a phenomenon for which no word then existed. This underlines what Pinker says about language and psychology: that language is not the limit of thought as a Viennese proclaimed. It is also more substantial than using an extant word for something resembling another object: cell, for instance.

Apart from giving us the vocabulary to do science and technology and engineering, Browne was a debunker. His Pseudodoxia Epidemica – superb title – refuted common errors and superstitions: “That there are different passages for Meat and Drink, the Meat or dry aliment descending by the one, the Drink or moistning vehicle by the other, is a popular Tenent in our daies…”

We could do with an updated version of this book and make it available to the lifestyle, health and pseudo-nutritionist experts.

©Copyright Guy Cranswick 2017. All Rights Reserved.

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