Years ago, while gossiping with a few classmates, I came across a word I had never heard before: bolster. Too scared to ask for the fear of being judged, I waited till I reached home and then googled it. On seeing what it was, I “face-palmed”. It was one of the first objects that baby me had known, but, with a different name. I called it a long, round pillow, which seemed practical because this is what it looks like:
This isn’t the only case. The English language is filled with words whose meanings have to be known beforehand to understand what is being referred to. Another such thing is the clock. Would any person, who doesn’t know what a clock is, relate the word to a timekeeping device? Wouldn’t time-teller be more suitable? After all, most of the objects we see around us have names that tell us their function. Like a toothbrush, which we use to brush our teeth. Or a dustbin, which is a bin for dust/dirt. Isn’t having an object named razor, which performs the function of shaving, confusing?
One main reason for this is that many words in the English language have been derived from other languages. Razor is derived from an old French word raser, which means ‘to shave’ whereas bolster has a Germanic origin. These words have been ‘adopted’ and thus have meanings which are closer to their functions in their language of origin.
Another question arises: why haven’t the names been changed later on? Wouldn’t a beginner find it easy to understand ‘The time-teller is kept on the long, round pillow’ than ‘The clock is on the bolster’, especially if there is more than one object there? ’Time-teller’ conveys the function of the object, thus making it easier to identify.
A major reason for this is probably to avoid confusion when there are two or more objects of the same kind but with different features. Suppose you have a clock and a wristwatch, both faster than the actual time. You want to tell an outsider how to check the right time, who is ignorant of the words ‘clock’ and ‘watch’.
“The time-teller which we can put on the wall, but is propped up against the table is five minutes faster and the time-teller which we can wear is two minutes faster than the original time.”
Sounds complicated, doesn’t it?