Language is not often created, words very rarely pop up and become absorbed into everyday use – they evolve slowly, changing or shifting their meaning gradually over long periods of time. There are created words, of course, but they are usually scientific terms and not supposed to be a casual part of conversation. An obvious exception is the created word ‘utopia’, or more correctly ‘Utopia’ (well, it was the name for an island). Created by Thomas Moore in 1516 from the Greek for οὐ (“not”) and τόπος (“place”) – effectively ‘no-place’, it was used to name a perfect society – and if that’s not genius I don’t know what is!
As for more commonly used words it can be interesting to see how they have changed use over time, ending up with the meaning now associated with them. As highlighted in an article in The Times newspaper (Saturday the 29th of September 2012), John Simpson (Chief Editor of the Oxford English Dictionary) traces the origin and evolution of the word ‘album’ and makes an amusing connection between ancient Rome and the 1968 album ‘The Beatles’ (more commonly known as ‘The White Album’).
Originally in ancient Rome the word ‘album’ was derived from the Latin ‘albus’ or ‘white’ and meant a blank tablet or noticeboard. The next stage of the word’s progress, about five hundred years later, came from Germany around 1550 where the term ‘album amicorum’ literally meant a collection or book of friends. When this meaning is first used in an English source from 1612 the Oxford English Dictionary notes that it is “a [blank] book in which contributions (such as signatures, memorial verses and epigrams) are inscribed for the owner”.
Nothing happens for the next few hundred years, but the meaning shifts again with the birth of photography. The word is adopted for a collection of photographs, stamps or postcards. The progress is almost complete with the advent of the Gramophone when it becomes used for a collection of records – not blank pages, but empty sleeves to group and protect the brittle shellac discs. The early 1950’s saw the word applied to the new 33⅓ rpm vinyl record, which revolutionised recorded music in the same way that the digital medium has in more recent years. Now, instead of the single track-per-side of the old Gramophone record, a whole collection, or album, could be stored on one disc with far superior fidelity to the original sound.
We have been left with a number of meanings for the word ‘album’, but the Beatles ‘White Album’ spans thousands of years of evolution, bringing together its original and current meanings into one.
Will the word fall out of favour and become extinct now that people more often download single tracks rather than a body of work from an artist, will the word be fixed to its mid-twentieth century meaning, or will it evolve further and be applied to a person’s own personal album of music, no matter how vast and varied that may be – who knows!