I first came across the word “subliminal” in a discussion of the psychology of advertising. The word is dated 1886 and is made up of two Latin roots meaning below and threshold. Linguists consider it the translation of a German phrase which means “below the threshold of consciousness”. A subliminal stimulus is one which is imperceptible to the conscious mind, but somehow leaves an image in the subconscious. The question whether such stimuli can influence people’s behaviour is widely debated. In 1957, James Vicary tried to demonstrate how he could make people in a movie theatre buy popcorn and Coke by repeatedly flashing for a fraction of a second the messages “Drink Coca Cola” and “Hungry? Eat popcorn”, while the movie Picnic was playing.
His findings remained controversial, and eventually the Federal Communications Commission declared subliminal advertising was “contrary to the public interest”. But self-help products using subliminal stimuli are still in great demand and consumers spend around $50 million (Rs250 crore) each year on such products.
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Nobody uses threshold in its literal meaning today, preferring door-sill to convey its meaning. It refers to the strip of wood placed at the bottom of a doorway. When you enter your house, you pass the threshold. As a metaphor, it is a favourite with writers. When the Council of Europe’s modern language programme designed a first-level course in English, it was called “threshold level English”. My favourite example of this metaphor comes from Bertrand Russell’s delightful blend of metaphor in the sentence: “...mankind is on the threshold of a golden age; but, if so, it will be necessary to first slay the dragon that guards the door, and that dragon is religion.” How very relevant to modern times!
Our home is where our heart is; and the language we speak draws liberally from our association with our home. Passing the threshold, we have the floor beneath us and the roof above us. Floor has several extended meanings. In public life, it can refer to the spot from where an MP addresses Parliament. “The speaker has given the floor to the leader of the opposition.” The expression “price floor” has been used in recent times to refer to a minimum guaranteed price. A recent report said Lord Turner, chairman of the UK committee on climate change, has asked for a “floor price” on carbon permits. When there’s a precipitous fall in prices, we say, “Prices have gone through the floor this month.” Floor also refers to the area of a stock exchange where securities are traded.
“Price ceiling” refers to the maximum price that can be charged for a product or asset. Communist ideology in India has introduced the concept of land ceiling, especially applicable to agricultural land. Nowadays the word “cap” is used instead. People are talking of a cap on carbon emissions. “Hit the ceiling (or roof)” means become angry and start shouting. “He will hit the roof when he knows he has not been selected.”
Doors keep things out, windows let things in. Window has a picturesque name, coming from Old Norse vindauga, “wind eye”. The Old English name for a window was eagthyrl, “eye hole”. Nostril, “nose hole”, is a similar compound. A metaphorical meaning is seen in the sentence, “You have a window of three months before you confirm your acceptance of the offer.” Business often uses the phrase “window of opportunity”—the Encarta dictionary defines it as “chance for profit: a brief opportunity to do something, especially something that will be beneficial or profitable in some way.” The phrase became popular after it was used as the title of an episode in a science-fiction TV serial.
The German word for window is Fenster. From this a new word, defenestration, was coined, to mean throwing someone or something out of the window. In the early 17th century, Bohemian Protestants feared their religious liberty was being suppressed by the Catholics. They called a meeting of the national assembly in 1618. Tempers ran high, and the Protestants threw two Catholic deputies and their secretary out of the window into a moat. This incident came to be designated “the defenestration of Prague”.
The word “eavesdropping” has lost its literal meaning. The edge of a roof that overhangs the outer walls of a building is known as eaves; and eavesdrop is the place where water from the eaves falls. One who stands there and secretly listens to what people inside are saying is an eavesdropper. Today, one does not have to stand under the eaves; the Watergate scandal has shown how one can have recourse to electronic wire-tapping devices.
In most houses, the kitchen remains the centre of activity. Scores of words and idioms are created to refer to what goes on in the kitchen. Here are some popular examples: in the soup, storm in the teacup, out of the frying pan into the fire, cook someone’s goose, pot calling the kettle black, and a finger in the pie.
V.R. Narayanaswami, a former professor of English, has written several books and articles on the usage of the language. He looks at the peculiarities of business and popular English usage in his fortnightly column. Comments can be sent to firstname.lastname@example.org