Phone. When I say that word, what springs to mind? For most of us, it’s a collection of plastic and wires that allows us to play games, watch movies, and — of course — talk to each other. But what does the word phone mean? It comes from the Greek word for “voice”. That’s it. No games, no movies, no bells and whistles. Well, except for Alexander Graham Bell, anyway. The word has morphed over the years. It had the prefix “mega” attached to it, to refer to the amplification of voice, or sound in general. There’s the suffix “graph”, which referred to a recording of voice — and again, the application of the phonograph moved beyond voice to sound in general. Then as I mentioned with AGB, the prefix “tele” speaks (pardon the pun) to the transmission of voice. But still, for us, the word phone means our favorite iOS or Android device, which has become less a telephone and more a computer. Computer. There’s another one. The term refers to a device that computes — that takes numerical input and produces a numerical response. The abacus is one of the oldest computers known to man. Millennia later, the slide rule. Then comes the calculator (another term that means just a little more than it did in the days of gears and paper tape). The first “computer” as we would recognize it filled multiple rooms. Decades later, the advancing technology compressed that computation ability small enough to fill a space vehicle and take mankind to the moon. Today, each one of our phones (“tele” phones, that is) have computation ability capable of running an ARMADA of those early space ships. And how about those computer peripherals, like the mouse? An electronic pointer, not a rodent. Scanner? Not something that “looks briefly”, but a device that copies and records images. Notebook? Not a collection of bound loose leaf pages, but a portable computer, small enough to fit in a briefcase or on a lap. The point is this. When we read or write, we expect a word to mean what WE think it means, when in reality, the meaning is determined not just by its definition but also by its context — which incudes an agreement of meaning between the author and the reader. This has bearing in all areas of life, from computers to fast food to politics to religion. Webster — God love him — is not the final say on what a word or phrase means. On the contrary, that is determined between the writer and his target audience. When we as readers come in as outsiders to that target audience, we are ultimately reading over their shoulders, reading a message that, though we MAY understand it, was written TO THEM in a language that they DID understand. It is incumbent upon us to not simply read that writing as WE read it, but to read it as THEY did.
What’s in a Word?