The Christian Bible begins with ‘In the beginning was the word’. This is one of the most famous lines in English, and yet nobody today really knows what it means. Part of it is that it has been translated several times, never a good way to obtain clarity of meaning, but more importantly, we live in a world where we have far more words, so each one means less than in the past. Elsewhere in the Bible, the Greek word that we get the word ‘word’ from, ie ‘logos’ is also the words coming from the burning bush. It is also the opposite of muthos, ie mythology, so can be interpreted as something like, clear thinking, or scientific thought. So it has a huge, open meaning that is far beyond our fenced in minds capacity to understand. It is, like the concept of God, just too big for us of little words to understand.
In the beginning each word had space around it, it stood clear, so people knew what it was, and if not they could make a reasonable guess as to its meaning. They may have known less, but what they knew, they knew well. Their words had considerable more depth than our vocabulary, which is more like a thick forest, a place where meaning struggles to be seen, where we quite literally cannot see the wood for the trees. And there are more being coined, or changed every day. One falls by the wayside and several spring up in its stead, some of which will vanish before maturity, a few will enter the hallowed pages of the dictionaries.
The fruit eaten by Adam and Eve is said to have been an apple, but if the Garden of Eden was in the Middle East, as most people seem to assume, did they have apples there? The term apple seems to be another one of these big open words that cover lots of meanings. It seems to mean a round, staple type of food. In Italy, the tomato, when introduced from the Americas was called and still is – pomme d’oro, or golden apple, as the original forms of the vegetable were golden. In the Netherlands, their staple food for peasants – also an introduction from the Americas – was named the Aardappel, or earth apple, the potato.
Corn is another word that can mean different things in different places – it can be sweet corn, or maize or even rye; it is the standard grain of the region. It is also where a term for making gunpowder comes from – when they formed it into pellets, the process was called ‘corning’.
Words change over time. The Saxon word ‘crug’ means hill, but churches were built on hills, so it seems that when non Saxon speakers pointed to a hill and asked what it was, it became the same. This is probably the origin of place names which have the same name twice, such as ‘churchhill‘. And crug or crock is also a shape of a building. ‘Avon’ is Celtic for water, or river, so River Avon is another common tautology used by non native speakers. There are places in Wales where the same term is used 3 times in 3 different languages to name the same thing. The same pattern can be seen when place names enter into other languages. In Japan, there is a mountain called Fujiama, which means Mount Fuji, but in English this is often named as Mount Fujiama.