It’s a funny thing, what we link words to. The First Reader and I were chatting yesterday as we made a fun expedition to Jungle Jim’s (still our favorite date destination, if somewhat less fun on a weekend when it’s crowded. We solve the problem of kids who also love JJ by handing them some cash as we go in and saying ‘have fun!’ plus it’s fun to see what they get when they’re set on their own).
So, um, getting back to my point. He was explaining to me that he used to play canasta with a friend. It wasn’t his game, but since they would make up a fourth for pinochle, he’d in turn play canasta, and beat them, usually. But it wasn’t the cards, it was that even though he spoke fairly fluent Spanish, he didn’t recognize what the word meant, until one day he was shopping and saw the sign on the cart, ‘no ninos en la canasta’ and suddenly it clicked that canasta meant basket. The cards in the game were supposed to be made into a basket (which still confuses me, since the only card game I’ve ever played was Rummy with my sister). Now, every time he’s shopping and sees the ‘canasta’ it reminds him of card games with his friends.
Words have both connotation and denotation, the actual defined meaning, and the meaning we assign to them. The English language, in particular, shifts as time passes. I can think of several words off the top of my head that don’t mean now what they meant a hundred years ago. That’s without even going back several hundred years to when our language was still forming from the nebulous admixture of other languages into what would become English. Sometimes this is deliberate, sometimes it’s just a natural evolution of the usage of a word. I’ve been watching, just in the last few years, the deliberate political manipulation of the word ‘fascist’ which has interesting origins in and of itself, ones which I suspect most young people who don’t get much history would not recognize. The word comes from the Romans, like so many of our words do, and refers to the fasces, the bundle of rods around an axe that was a symbol of collective power in the Roman era, and was adopted by socialist-leaning governments later on. I find it fascinating, if somewhat repellant, to see the efforts to apply the term now to the movement away from big government: in other words, the exact opposite of what the fasces was supposed to represent originally.