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Translation: A History of Synonyms


When you take something from one language and put it into another, there’s a word for the activity: translate. It’s a nice carry-across from Latin by way of French, and its components amount to just that: “across” for trans, “carry” for late. The Oxford English Dictionary dates the word to 1300, in a history book known as Cursor Mundi: “This same book it is translated into English tongue to read.”

What did we say for “translate” before that? At the History of the English Language conference in Vancouver this month, Joanna Esquibel, of the Polish University of Social Sciences and Humanities, presented a list that includes:

wend, set (Old English, before the Norman conquest of 1066)

turn, draw, write, take (OE words that acquired the meaning of “translate” during the Middle English period, 1066-1500)

The French invasion of English began with the Norman conquest. For the next several centuries, during much of the Middle English period, the rulers of England spoke French. And lots of French vocabulary seeped into English, including these equivalents of translate (and translate itself):

expound, interpret, transpose, render

In the context of wend, set, turn, draw, write, and take, the newcomer translate looks to be odd word out. But it fits right in with its French cousins, and so it emerged as the standard today.

Esquibel’s talk focused on a close analysis of the contexts of those words. But where did she find them? She made use of a new resource, the Historical Thesaurus of the OED, available to the dictionary’s online subscribers.

Like any thesaurus, it lists words that have more or less equivalent meanings. But unlike any other, it arranges synonyms historically. By looking under translate, you get all the words I have mentioned and more, arranged chronologically from early Old English to the 19th century. Versionize, from 1874, is the latest.

We are hardly confined to translate when we speak of that activity; we can choose a synonym with a different connotation, like render, interpret, or compile. The English language has a vast hoard of words, open to all. A look at the thesaurus helps explain why it’s so vast.

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