The Wending Ways of Words

We tend to think of words as fixed, immutable—they mean something, dammit. And unless we’re channelling the Mad Hatter from Alice in Wonderland, we expect that everyone will pretty much agree on what that meaning is (even of the word is). At any given moment in time, for any given language, this is largely true. But if you look at a language through time, you find that the meanings of words are squirrelly little things, changing on a whim.

To take an example: pretty much anyone we asked today would agree about what it means to “google” something (except, perhaps, Tracy Jordan). But take a time machine back to 1950 and ask people the same question. A few mathematics types might tell you that you must mean a googol (a one followed by 100 zeros), but most people would just look at you blankly and say, “A what now?”

In the space of a few short decades, the word went from a specialized, somewhat whimsical mathematical term, to the name of a company, to a verb meaning “search on the Internet.” And the verb is almost entirely divorced from the company name now. You can google something on Yahoo! or Bing just as easily as you can on Google, much to the chagrin of Google’s legal department, who’d rather you something it.

This slipping and sliding of meaning happens all the time. It’s often bemoaned by self-styled opponents of the degeneration of language, but it’s a natural process that’s found in every living language that’s ever existed, and it’s a key part of the creativity that underlies language. If meanings didn’t change, we’d have no way of talking about the changing world around us.

Beutler Ink’s latest labs project, with awesome design work fromScrap Labs, considers another word that, like googol, was almost completely unknown 60 years ago. Originally from Hawaiʻian, the word wiki has taken on a life of its own after being borrowed into English. Wiki: A Word’s Journey tracks some of these changes in meaning, and the ever changing way the word’s being used in English and other languages.

Even the Mad Hatter would be humbled.

*Whoops! Thanks, Neal!