Old Words, New Meanings


Marco de Pinto

Marco de Pinto has taught English to Brazilian learners and now is a translator. As a literary translator, he won two awards for his translation of Livro de Dede Korkut and Nâzım Hikmet’s Paisagens Humanas dos meu País from Turkish into Portuguese. He is currently a trustee of the National Museum of Language (Maryland).

Not all English dictionaries reached the same conclusion, but if you ask the average person on the street, they will probably tell you that the words that most represented 2020 are “lockdown” and “pandemic.” This was the decision reached, for example, by Collins Dictionary.

The very fact that the dormant English word lockdown saw its frequency of use rise in such a staggering and sudden way makes us think that words are almost like laws unto themselves, reminding us that in language as in everything else, change is inevitable. The word itself has seen its semantic core shift, from meaning the confinement of prisoners to their cells following a riot or other disturbance (which, according to my Random House Unabridged Dictionary, dates from the 1970s and was coined by analogy with compounds like crackdown and shutdown) to a situation in which buildings are shut down for safety, as in the case of attacks or shootings. Finally, it now refers to staying home because of a virus.

Let’s change linguistic domains and talk a little about linguistic borrowing and acceptance. As we discuss how several language communities have decided to express the concept of “lock-down” in their languages, you’ll see that some of them chose to keep the English word, whereas others decided to localize it. With exceptions such as Italian, which incidentally abounds with other borrowings from English, many Romance languages in Europe chose to use already-existing words, such as the Spanish confinamiento, Portuguese confinamento, and perhaps not surprisingly, French with confinement. The Brazilians, however, to maintain their tradition of adopting foreign words unchanged, chose lockdown (pronounced /lɔkı̍ daũ/). It would indeed be very odd, almost disrespectful, to be a linguistic purist now, at a time when governments are occupied thinking about the solution to the pandemic — another word with negligible frequency that has witnessed a staggering spike in use. And indeed both Italian and German have decided to maintain the original English word, used alongside their mandatory articles, respectively il and der.

Let’s now give examples of languages further afield, very different from English. Arabic, as is often the case, has multiple words for the same or a similar concept. One is popular (or low register, in linguistic parlance) and dependent on the regional variety of Arabic being discussed, and another one is more formal (or high register). This situation, in which two languages or varieties of a language exist parallel to each other and are used in different domains, is typically described as diglossia. However, limited examples may occur in other non-diglossic languages as well, as seen in the words for restroom in Brazilian Portuguese: sanitário (high) and banheiro (low). No one will ever ask you in Brazil “onde é o sanitário?” 

“It is my hope that, in all the present chaos in the world we can at least also find solace in the thought that one day the world will be like it was before. Because, after all, as languages and history show us and Solomon so wisely declared, there is nothing new under the sun.”

In Arabic, ighlāq (šāmil), literally complete closure, was used to mean lockdown in the high register, and ḥajr ṣiḥḥi, literally “health prohibition,” was used in many low register varieties — though it occasionally makes an appearance in its expanded meaning in the high register as well. Persian, also known as Farsi, an Indo-European language like English, has a more poetical slant: ta’tili, literally “holiday.” Originally a borrowing from Arabic, it means “break,” or “interruption” in Persian. Turkish takes another approach: sokağa çıkma yasağı, or “prohibition of going out into the street.”

The larger point here is to ask a pertinent question: why are some words readily accepted by a given speech community while others are doomed to oblivion? Sorry to disappoint you, but the answer is not as straightforward as we would like it to be. The renowned British linguist David Crystal goes so far as to say that “[i]t remains a lexicological puzzle why some words were accepted and some rejected. We do not know how to account for the linguistic ‘survival of the fittest.’” Analogy here certainly plays a role, but it is not always so easy to guess what a whole language community thinks of all the associations behind a newly coined word. You might think here of Ferdinand de Saussure’s description of a linguistic sign — house, in English, does not conjure up exactly the same images that the word casa would for a Spanish speaker, to give but one example.

Let’s look at the matter closely and cross-linguistically. The other day, as I was translating a document from Turkish into English, I came across a word that made me smile: faks (fax, in case it’s not obvious). I smiled not only because it is rarely used anymore due to technological advances, but because its use was banned by the TDK (Türk Dil Kurumu), the Turkish Language Academy, as a detestable borrowing. The TDK suggested belgegeçer instead, a compound made up of belge (document) and geçer ([it] passes). It is not uncommon to find such structures in other languages, especially for older devices, as can be seen in the Spanish word tocadiscos ([it] plays records). Ironically and maybe not surprisingly, the word belgegeçer was not the chosen one in the document I was translating, but — believe it or not — it is still used on the official site of the TDK ( alongside the word — and here is another irony — telefon, meaning, of course, telephone. This little Greek-derived word, a compound which so many Indo-European languages adopted, is not universal and, as one might guess, was the target of puristic attitudes by some language communities, giving us translations such as the German Fernsprecher (far + speaker). In this case, the untranslated loanword Telefon won in German as well as Turkish.

For the same word, in Arabic we find hātif, derived from a root meaning to shout or cry. A telephone, then, is “that which shouts.” This does not tell the whole story, however, and we must revisit another sociolinguistic term, diglossia. Originally the word for bilingualism in Greek, it was first used in an expanded sense by the Greek writer Emmanuel Rhoides, adopted into French as diglossie by Greek linguist Ioannis Psycharis, and later used by the William Ambroise Marçais in an article entitled “La diglossie arabe.” Diglossia is a common feature of some language communities such as Arabophone ones, and as far as the telephone goes, talifōn is the preferred word in everyday usage, while hātif is used only in formal contexts, written or otherwise.

An interesting example of purism that actually succeeded in ousting a borrowing is the Italian word for football (soccer), calcio, derived from the Latin word for heel, calx. This stands in contrast to the almost universal “football” in its different local variants. According to Roger Hughes, “during the Fascist ventennio, the growing popularity of the sport was not lost on the (highly Anglophobe) Duce, who uncovered/invented some supposed Italian roots for it (including the Florentine calcio in costume) and decreed that the vocabulary of the sport should be stripped of English loanwords and native Italian terms used in their place.”

In short, amidst all this chaos we find — for better or for worse — communication. It is my hope that, in all the present chaos in the world we can at least also find solace in the thought that one day the world will be like it was before. Because, after all, as languages and history show us and Solomon so wisely declared, there is nothing new under the sun.