Words are amazing. They’re really nothing more than a bunch of sounds strung together but somehow, magically, they are imbued with meaning, purpose, and even emotion. We freely borrow them from and trade them between languages. In doing so, we sometimes change their meanings to suit our own needs and thereby enrich our ability to communicate.
Lately, I’ve been intrigued by the word PLASTIC. It began life as an ancient Greek word – plastikos – meaning something capable of being shaped or more specifically molded. It also implied that a thing was suitable for molding. Bronze, terra cotta, clay, even bread might have been thought of as being plastic.
It was perfectly happy with that meaning until somewhere around the middle of the 1830s. It was then that a bunch of doctors got ahold of it. (Yes, ahold is a word, at least according to Merriam-Webster, the source authority for Standard American English.) And, being in touch with their inner Victor Frankenstein who burst so dramatically onto the scene a few decades before, they changed the centuries old word to mean a surgery that could remedy a structural deficiency of the body. (Pretty snazzy literary tie in, right?) But, to be fair, when you think of it broadly is sort of the same thing. After all, they were using the word to describe how their skill sets were used to reshape or remold a person’s physical attributes.
Next, in the 1890s the venerable plastic got itself married to explosives. It must have been a nice change, being able to get its hands dirty again after being in medical school. Yet again, it’s a fairly consistent meaning because plastic explosives are made of materials that can be molded to conform to the shape of the thing to be blown up. Or they can be molded by insane people into cute animal shapes in an effort to eradicate a subterranean rodent. (Caddyshack 1980)
But I digress.
The real transformation came somewhere around a decade and a half later when plastic made a radical shift. It went from being an adjective to a noun. And, being a noun, it required corporeal status which it got with the invention of Bakelite. From such humble (and brittle) beginnings plastic has evolved into the wondrous substance we have today.
Of course, true to its ever changing nature, plastic had brief flirtations with other meanings in the mid to late 20th Century. It dallied with the counterculture of the 60s when it was used to mean fake or superficial. Then it grew up and went to work for the financial sector where it acted as a stand in for longer and more cumbersome names like “bank card” or “credit card.”
In time I’m certain that plastic will again evolve its meaning and perhaps even its form. After all, it’s been around quite literally for millennia, why should it give up now?
In reading this, you may find yourself with the same realization that I had. The word PLASTIC is true to its name. It has been molded, changed, shaped, and reconfigured throughout history, yet it’s always hung in there. What a wonderful thing; to go through all that and still remain true to yourself.
It’s something to think about.