Miguel Panao | Professor and Author

Finding ways to improve scientific writing and academic productivity.

Words change cultures

Why have we called an animal with the following form

… a cat? Why not ”cut”, pronounced as kjuːt where the “u” is voiced as its letter pronunciation, because they’re so…cute, right? I guess nobody knows and the question seems pointless. However, while naming an animal doesn’t change for millennia, other words change their meaning. Let’s look at sacrifice.

Sacrifice can be

”an act of slaughtering an animal or person or surrendering a possession as an offering to a deity.”


”an act of giving up something valued for the sake of something else regarded as more important or worthy.”

It all depends on the context. However, for most people, sacrifice means a loss. But it is not the origin of the word. It joins sacer (sacred) with facio (make), which we could explain as making of something, something sacred, the opposite of loss and becoming something highly valuable.

Consider the word ”bullying” from bully which in Dutch is boel meaning lover or brother. Its meaning deteriorated in the XVII century toward “fine fellow”, “blusterer” to “harasser of the week.” It is the reason why Captain America want to fight in the war against the Nazis – “I don’t like bullies.”

”The pen is mightier than the sword.” – Edward Bulwer-Lytton

Challenging the meaning of words is a form of provoking cultural change.

About Miguel Panao

I am a Professor at the University of Coimbra in Mechanical Engineering. I am also author of books in the fields of environmental ethics and Science and Religion. From the several research projects, this site is personal and dedicated to the search for the best approaches, tools, techniques to improve scientific productivity.

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