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Thread: Language: Why are so different things called the same?

  1. #1 Language: Why are so different things called the same? 
    Forum Ph.D. Leszek Luchowski's Avatar
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    It has been suggested that language can be discussed under General Discussion, pending a decision whether or not to create a separate subforum for the purpose.

    Here I go then:

    The English word "state" means

    a) the political structure of a sovereign nation (or part thereof, as in the USA, where nevertheless the president is head of _state_, in the singular), and

    b) the condition something or somebody is in, as in "he was found beside the road in a shocking state".

    This double meaning is echoed by the French etat (pardon the lack of accents on my keyboard), Italian stato and others. I think there is a Latin homonimy lurking in the background.

    Now my question is: what do these two meanings have in common, to warrant the use of the same word?

    I was to write about another such similarity but I can't remember it at the moment, so this will be it for now. Thanks in advance for any enlightment.

    PS: Oh yes I remember it now! That one's unique to English I think:

    Function:

    a) a relation uniquely assigning a value from a certain set to every element of another set,

    b) the possibility, built into a device, to serve a particular purpose (a Swiss army knife with many functions),

    and, most curiously to me,

    c) a formal party or meeting.

    I only learned this third meaning relatively recently, and it came as quite a surprise. I still haven't quite got the connection with the other meanings.

    Cheers, L.


    Leszek. Pronounced [LEH-sheck]. The wondering Slav.
    History teaches us that we don't learn from history.
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  3. #2 Re: Language: Why are so different things called the same? 
    Universal Mind John Galt's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Leszek Luchowski
    The English word "state" means

    a) the political structure of a sovereign nation (or part thereof, as in the USA, where nevertheless the president is head of _state_, in the singular), and

    b) the condition something or somebody is in, as in "he was found beside the road in a shocking state".
    This is my understanding. The latin status meant "manner of standing, position, condition," so your usage (b) retains that meaning. It was also the practice to refer to the state of a country. We see such usage today in the US where the President gives an annual State of the Union address.

    It was then a simple matter to transfer state to refer to the country itself. There is a technical term for this process or figure of speech, but I can't recall it's name. It's similar to refering to workers in a factory as hands because we focus on the obvious part of them that does the work.

    (I confirmed this was roughly the right idea at this useful site, where I also got the latin definition for status.)


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    Forum Isotope Bunbury's Avatar
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    The various meanings of state would, I imagine, derive from the idea of a certain delineated body being in a more or less uniform condition. A body of matter can be in a gaseous, liquid or solid state. A human body can be in a healthy or a sick state. A country is a state because it has a unique sovereignty and is formally different from its neighbors. Just speculating really. Good question.

    Of course state can also be a verb.
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    One can see how the mathematical definition of "function" could grow out of the duty or performance meaning of the word. You might say "growth is a function of nutrition" which would mean nutrition causes growth to happen, or growth is the purpose of nutrition. Then you could make a graph with nutrition on one axis and growth on the other, and there you have it.

    As far as the party definition of the word is concerned, I suppose it is just the idea that something is happening. There is an action. I don't know. It's a bit hazy, isn't it?
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    Completely unrelated to the original post apart from the idea of the same words used for different things.

    I find it interesting that in English, the word 'flower' and 'flour' sound the same yet are completely different things and are spelled differently, yet in Dutch, the word used for both 'flower' and 'flour' is the same word - bloem. It might just be a strange coincidence, but does anyone know if there is a link between bloem being used for both things in Dutch and our words for them having the same sound?
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  7. #6  
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    Quote Originally Posted by Mad4Microbes
    I find it interesting that in English, the word 'flower' and 'flour' sound the same yet are completely different things and are spelled differently, yet in Dutch, the word used for both 'flower' and 'flour' is the same word - bloem. It might just be a strange coincidence, but does anyone know if there is a link between bloem being used for both things in Dutch and our words for them having the same sound?
    In English, the delicate powder coating unmolested plums and grapes is also called "bloom". I guess it's a kind of Dutch bloem...?

    Anyway, to Leszek's question. Because English includes so many words to choose from, we often pick words for nuance or double meaning. This way we say more with less. For example "unmolested plums" communicates one serious idea and one silly subtext.... just because I can. If you're very fluent you can "read between the lines" of what equally fluent people also say consciously, or unconsciously, by their choice of words.

    We keep words that convey additional flavour. For example Canadians say (British) "pail" or (American) "bucket" depending on the contents: we dig cheap ice-cream out of a bucket; Häagen-Dazs is spooned from a pail. Likewise we retain the word pale because sometimes it conveys nuance that a lighter shade does not.
    A pong by any other name is still a pong. -williampinn
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  8. #7 Re: Language: Why are so different things called the same? 
    Forum Cosmic Wizard i_feel_tiredsleepy's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Ophiolite
    Quote Originally Posted by Leszek Luchowski
    The English word "state" means

    a) the political structure of a sovereign nation (or part thereof, as in the USA, where nevertheless the president is head of _state_, in the singular), and

    b) the condition something or somebody is in, as in "he was found beside the road in a shocking state".
    This is my understanding. The latin status meant "manner of standing, position, condition," so your usage (b) retains that meaning. It was also the practice to refer to the state of a country. We see such usage today in the US where the President gives an annual State of the Union address.

    It was then a simple matter to transfer state to refer to the country itself. There is a technical term for this process or figure of speech, but I can't recall it's name. It's similar to refering to workers in a factory as hands because we focus on the obvious part of them that does the work.

    (I confirmed this was roughly the right idea at this useful site, where I also got the latin definition for status.)
    The word you're looking for is metonymy. More specifically, using hands to refer to factory workers is a synecdoche.

    Edit: I think the definition of function which refers to social gatherings is related to metonymy too. "Function" is usually only used for highly formal and organized reunions that have a purpose, in which case the purpose or "function" is being used to describe the entire occasion.

    Edit2: As to the flour/flower thing, I'm guessing this has to do with the French influence on the English language. Since, flour in archaic French is "fleur de farine" (just farine in modern French). I'm guessing "fleur", which means flower in French, began to be used to refer to flour and the spelling changed over time.
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    Forum Ph.D. Leszek Luchowski's Avatar
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    Thanks for all the hints and answers. Tiredsleepy, if "fleur de la farine" meant flour, what did "farine" alone mean?

    Got to run now, see you in the evening (by Central European Time).

    Cheers - L.
    Leszek. Pronounced [LEH-sheck]. The wondering Slav.
    History teaches us that we don't learn from history.
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    According to my dictionary, flour was just a different spelling of the word flower. The French "fleur de farine" translates to "flower of meal" meaning the best part of meal.
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  11. #10 Re: Language: Why are so different things called the same? 
    Universal Mind John Galt's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by i_feel_tiredsleepy
    The word you're looking for is metonymy. More specifically, using hands to refer to factory workers is a synecdoche.
    Thank you. That is exactly correct. Curiously I could remember the seat and my neigbour from the time I was introduced to those four decades ago, I just couldn't remember the words themselves.
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  12. #11  
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    Its simple, words assume alternative meanings through social interaction, which is the main factor in the evolution of words.

    What is also important to recognize is that English words are derived from a lot of languages.
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  13. #12  
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    Quote Originally Posted by Harold14370
    "flower of meal" meaning the best part of meal.
    There it is again. This is like the Japanese word for meal being rice.

    Quote Originally Posted by Chronman
    English words are derived from a lot of languages
    Americans say yam for (Caribbean) sweet potato, after the Senegalese nyami "to eat" (also their word for the African tuber). After plantations stopped growing (sweet Caribbean) "yams" as slave staple the words yummy and yum appear.
    A pong by any other name is still a pong. -williampinn
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    I think any language has the same situation. The same word, the same spelling but different meaning. Sometimes, it can lead to misunderstanding case. That's interesting!
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  15. #14  
    Universal Mind John Galt's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by littleAngel89
    I think any language has the same situation. The same word, the same spelling but different meaning.
    Chinese? :wink:
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