Humpty Dumpty and the Meaning of a Word


“When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said, in a rather a scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean—neither more nor less.” Alice in Wonderland

When we modern people use terminology from yoga, we generally mean what we choose the words to mean. For example, when you say the word, yoga, what images or associations come into your head? A mental picture of someone in an asana pose? A Lululemon ad? The memory of walking out of a class with others, feeling sweaty and happy? Those associations are what you mean by yoga – and what most of us mean, here in Los Angeles.

That’s fair. That is the living use of a word. Rough and tumble. The good part is, we get a new word - yoga. The sort of bad part is, we lose the context, the rich texture of meaning of the word. Overall, it’s a good import.

What we mean by yoga is not what the experts in Sanskrit over the past several thousand years have meant by yoga, according to the Sanskrit pundits in India. (in a sec we will look at the Sanskrit dictionary). Sanskrit is a dead language or a liturgical language - take your pick. It is gorgeous and ceremonial. Fixed in time, frozen in meaning.

Living languages are Humpty-Dumpty because when we use words to mean what we choose them to mean, the dictionary gets rewritten.

(Humpty Dumpty said)'... There's glory for you!'
`I don't know what you mean by "glory",' Alice said.
Humpty Dumpty smiled contemptuously. `Of course you don't -- till I tell you. I meant "there's a nice knock-down argument for you!"'
`But "glory" doesn't mean "a nice knock-down argument",' Alice objected.
`When I use a word,' Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, `it means just what I choose it to mean -- neither more nor less.'

If Humpty Dumpty kept using "glory" to mean "a nice knock-down argument,” and the term caught on, ten years later this usage would be part of English dictionaries.

In a living language, words change meaning all the time. When we say mouse, we now mean a computer pointing device as well as a little rodent.

“Due to the advancement of science and technology, new words are also being created at an amazing rate. . . Once every ten years, the Merriam- Webster dictionary is updated. Their 11th edition for 2003 included some 10,000 new words along with 100,000 new meanings to words already existing and some 225,00 revised definitions.” - Mary Boomhower.



“Nice used to be an insult and meant foolish or stupid in the 13th century and it went through many changes right through to the 18th century with meanings like wanton, extravagant, elegant, strange, modest, thin, and shy or coy. Now it means a good & pleasing or thoughtful & kind.”

From Wonderful to Awful

The word awful used to mean ‘full of awe’ – something wonderful, delightful, amazing. Over time, by usage, it has somehow shifted to mean the opposite. So now that is the meaning in our dictionaries.

Addict used to mean "to award as a slave" – from the Latin addictus which, in Roman law, meant "a debtor awarded as a slave to his creditor." Daily Kos. “Century once described a 100-man Roman army. If you had charisma, you had the god-given gift to perform miracles. From the Greek kharis, "god-given favor." As an adjective, cheap is fairly recent. Its ultimate source goes back to the Latin noun caupo, "tradesman." The original sense is preserved in the surname Chapman. The early meaning of clay was "material of the human body." Clergy first meant "learning, scholarship," and clerk was the word for a man ordained into the Christian ministry. Climate originally denoted a zone of the earth between two lines of latitude. The noun compass, was once an adjective meaning "cunning, cleverness, ingenuity." Complexion first meant a person's physical nature and because that was thought to be revealed by the color and texture of the skin, it came to describe the appearance of facial skin. If you confused someone, you brought them to ruin. From Latin confusionem, a noun of action from confundere "to pour together," (com- "together" + fundere "to pour"). Conserve once meant to observe a custom or rite. Counterfeit once denoted a perfect copy. To crave once meant to demand as a legal right. Cuff once described a glove or mitten. Cute is a shortened form of acute, meaning "keenly perceptive; shrewd." If you were daft, you were not silly but "mild and meek." From the Germanic word gadaftjaz, it was probably influenced by analogy with daffe "halfwit." The original sense of dainty was "substantial and able," a complete 360 from nowadays! Damp once described noxious vapors or smoke. A dapper person was once a heavy person. More here at The Mad Logophile. And here is a Google search for words that have changed meaning.

From Yoking Horses to Asana

Here is an example of how the word yoga is evolving (or devolving, depending upon your perspective):

World English Dictionary
yoga (ˈjəʊɡə) — n

1. a Hindu system of philosophy aiming at the mystical union of the self with the Supreme Being in a state of complete awareness and tranquillity through certain physical and mental exercises

2. Astanga yoga Bikram yoga hatha yoga power yoga raja yoga. See Sivananda yoga any method by which such awareness and tranquillity are attained, esp a course of related exercises and postures designed to promote physical and spiritual wellbeing

[C19: from Sanskrit: a yoking, union, from yunakti he yokes]

Not a hint here of “yoking your horses together,” or “arranging your army.”

English dictionaries are being rewritten to accommodate the way we use the word yoga – what we choose it to mean.

The Sanskrit dictionary does not get rewritten – Sanskrit is a liturgical language and the meaning of the word is set by tradition.

The classical definition of Yoga

Here is the classical definition of “Yoga ” – the full definition of the word as set forth in the Monier-Williams Sanskrit-English Dictionary, page 856:

  • The act of yoking, joining, attaching, harnessing, putting to (of horses),
    • a yoke, team, vehicle, conveyance.
    • Employment, use, application, performance.
    • Equipping or arraying (of an army)
    • Fixing (of an arrow on the bow-string)
    • Putting on (of armor)
    • A remedy, cure
    • A means, expedient, device, way, manner, method
    • A supernatural means, charm, incantation, magical art
    • A trick, strategem, fraud, deceit
    • undertaking , business , work
    • acquisition , gain , profit , wealth , property
    • occasion , opportunity
    • any junction , union , combination , contact with,
    • to agree , consent , acquiesce in anything
    • mixing of various materials , mixture
    • partaking of , possessing
    • connection , relation
    • putting together , arrangement , disposition , regular succession
    • fitting together , fitness , propriety , suitability
    • exertion , endeavour , zeal , diligence , industry , care , attention, strenuously , assiduously; with all one's powers , with overflowing zeal
    • application or concentration of the thoughts , abstract contemplation , meditation, self-concentration , abstract meditation and mental abstraction practised as a system (as taught by patañjali and called the yoga philosophy ; it is the second of the two sāṃkhya systems , its chief aim being to teach the means by which the human spirit may attain complete union with īśvara or the Supreme Spirit ; in the practice of self-concentration it is closely connected with Buddhism)
    • any simple act or rite conducive to yoga or abstract meditation
    • Yoga personified (as the son of Dharma and Kriyā)
    • a follower of the yoga system
    • the union of soul with matter
    • the union of the individual soul with the universal soul
    • devotion , pious seeking after God
    • m. (with jainas) contact or mixing with the outer world
    • m. (in astronomy.) conjunction , lucky conjuncture. a constellation , asterism (these , with the moon , are called cāndra-yogāḥ and are 13 in number ; without the moon they are called kha-yogāḥ , or nābhasa-yogāḥ)
    • the leading or principal star of a lunar asterism
    • N. of a variable division of time (during which the joint motion in longitude of the sun and moon amounts to 13 degrees 20 minutes ; there are 27 such yogas beginning with viṣkambha and ending with vaidhṛti)
    • (in arithmetic) addition, sum, total
    • (in grammar) the connection of words together , syntactical dependence of a word , construction
    • a combined or concentrated grammatical rule or aphorism
    • the connection of a word with its root , original or etymological meaning
    • a violator of confidence , spy

If we use the word yoga with awareness of its vast semantic range then we could claim we are speaking Sanskrit, even if only for the one second that it takes to say the word. If we use the word yoga to mean what we want it to mean, then we are speaking English. And this is fair–it’s fair use and we are breathing new life into an ancient word and making it work for us. And as Humpty Dumpty would say, we should pay it extra for all the new chores we have it doing.

`When I make a word do a lot of work like that,' said Humpty Dumpty, `I always pay it extra.'

Change In the meaning of the word is called “semantic shift.” The whole idea of Sanskrit is to prevent shifts in pronunciation and meaning.