Meaning to be Forgotten

There is nothing so common as language. Whilst there is sadness at stories of the death of some old languages, the truth is that the language does not die so much as its speakers. The purpose of language is communication. A language that nobody wants to speak can never be alive. It can only exist as a vestigial curiosity, like the chimney of a centrally-heated house. Sometimes words die completely. Sometimes the meanings die but the sounds persist, attached to newer meanings that better reflect the purposes of the current time. This is because language is the servant of human affairs, and human affairs are concerned with the present. A natural inclination to be sentimental about this ‘loss’ of the meaning of words should be tempered by the realization that some objects and ideas are best consigned to history. Nobody should want to manufacture a thumbscrew or practice slavery merely to give life to the meanings of the word ‘thumbscrew’ and ‘slavery’. On the other hand, it is more debatable if losing the words ‘chivalry’ or ‘mulatto’ might impoverish or improve our language.

The present age is fortunate to be able to look back on the cradles of language and trace the lineage of the words we use, and the words that were forgotten, with much more confidence than most of us can trace our family line. Though many a reader’s eyes will scan right past it, the dictionary’s finest source of pleasure comes when explaining the derivation of a word. I am not in a position to forecast how the mind of man might change, and hence his views and the words he uses to describe the world around him. Predicting the future of technology is a little easier, as we can see the changes taking place. The commonest transition with technology is that the new but important invention begins as novel, becomes rare, then common, then ubiquitous. The technology that it supersedes goes through a mirror-image decline from extant to archaic. Here are a few predictions for the consequences of technology change will be manifest in the lost meanings of words, and how their echoes might persist.


The decline of paper books means the decline of the basic unit of the physical substratum to the book – namely, the page. With the rise of the web, the page will exist as a grouping idea and its scale will be driven by the scale of what people can see on a screen.


Music gods Pink Floyd were recently successful in their legal battle to assert that permission to sell an album was permission to sell the integrated work, but not permission to sell its constituent components, the songs. Because of the shift from physical to digital, the idea of the album will also transform from a physical grouping to a conceptual and organizational grouping. However, when this happens, the idea will be used less frequently and more fluidly, stripping it of some of its current significance. Without besmirching the artistic integrity of Pink Floyd, the duration of their albums were not independent of such prosaic concerns as the volume of content that can be scratched on to the surface of a piece of vinyl, or the costs of manufacturing that spiral scratch. In future though, an album might be as short or as long as the creator desires, without ever needing to consider the kinds of practicalities enforced by selling content in plastic form.

Telephone ring

Telephones used to ring because bells were the only practical mechanism to attract attention to them. Our conventions still mean we are habituated to the idea of ringing as a signal we should respond to, like the school bell heralds the beginning of classes. However, a bell is no more representative of the idea of an incoming phone call than a foghorn is representative of a ship in the dark or the clapping hands represents appreciation. Whilst we will be sticking with applause as a signal of an audience’s reward until such time as there is a uniform noise-making alternative as readily to hand, the telephone ring will literally ring less and less, to be replaced by musical ditties, vibrating trouser pockets and – coming soon to a phone near you – the voices of Mr. T or Katie Price announcing the names of the people who want to talk to us.


The beauty of the infinitely scaled network, where everybody is a node that can be both receive and create content, and where there is route from every node to every node, is that a person can speak to the world as easy as speaking to a single friend. In such a world, the distinction between a broadcast and a narrowcast is lost. What matters is not the physical infrastructure to transmit, as is the cast with media like traditional television and radio broadcasting, which consume the same resources even if nobody tunes in. All that will distinguish the broad from the narrow is how many choose to be on the receiving end.


The film will persist as an entertainment format, but the film on which it is printed is already dying. Fewer and fewer of us put films into our cameras. Digital memory devices are modern man’s preferred optical backend. This leaves the word ‘film’ to be used solely as yet another variation on the theme of a final, selective, edited grouping of gathered content. Of course, this only begs the question of what function is really being served by the presentation of a two-hour story in a collective hall.


The encyclopedia is delineated by what it excludes, as much as by what it contains. Its contents are authoritative wisdom. What is left out is second-rate referential information, literally by definition. Yet in a postmodern era, who can say what knowledge is deserving to make the cut, and what belongs elsewhere? The choices of what to include reflect prejudices that are both cultural and historical, and the need to choose is again driven by an economic choice – how much to include in the finite pages of a physical text. When stripped of the physicality, our boundary between the encyclopedia and all other information is normative only. It may be a source of comfort to impose expectations on what qualifies for inclusion. Then again, do we really expect every encyclopedia entry to be equally authoritative? Ponder what encyclopedias used to say about the women’s afflication of hysteria or how much space was given to describing gout compared to sickle-cell. Without the constraints of a limited number of pages, why not simply allow the encyclopedia to adopt a tailing edge, floating like a ship of relatively buoyant facts upon a sea of less differentiated information?

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