As I was leafing through some of the write-ups on census 2010, I noticed a word that I hadn’t come across before. The writer said the census data would undergo “deduplication”. I could guess the meaning straightaway, thinking it must be a new coinage from data processing. But then I found that the word had been around for more than a century. Webster’s dictionary (1913) defined it as a botanical term meaning “division of one organ into two or more”. The present-day meaning is the opposite of this. With census data, it means reducing multiple entries of the same data into a single entry. “Dedupe software” can cleanse lists and databases.
The prefix de- illustrated here is a productive element in English vocabulary. Words with this prefix often have a scholarly or a technical ring. The roots in these words come from Latin or Greek. Samuel Johnson’s dictionary has some interesting examples: “defloration” as a synonym for rape; and “deosculation” and “osculation” both mean the act of kissing, from osculum or “little mouth”. A modern word of this type is “deracination”, which means uprooting, or displacing people from their native environment. Ethnic cleansing begins there.
The most obvious meaning suggested by the prefix is removing stuff from a system or a body. We deworm our pet dogs, and sometimes ourselves. Delousing is a similar process. “Desalination” is now a hotly pursued subject. “Debugging” helps remove errors or defects in a computer program.
When a priest is stripped of his rank, he is said to be defrocked. But debriefing has nothing to do with the article of clothing called briefs. It means interrogation of a person during or after the performance of an assigned task.
Not all words prefixed with de- are welcome. A word such as “deratization”, which made a brief appearance in the language, is an ugly formation. “Debottlenecking the supply of gas cylinders” sounds like a joke. “Decasualization” is another jarring word. Sir Alan Herbert, a British parliamentarian and author, once spoke of the de-fever and ise-mania that were afflicting the English language. He declared a war on such formations, which he called “jungle English”.
The use of this prefix often indicates the reversal of a process. A “deobstruent” helps remove obstructions in a system. A widely discussed word here is “desegregation”. Why not integration, or reintegration? Why add a negative prefix to a negative concept? The Election Commission can derecognize a political party; ships on arrival at port can be “decontaminated”. File systems on the computer can be “defragmented”. “Decryption” helps us recover encrypted data.
“Construction” and “destruction” are words that we learn early. We see the same pattern in “consecrate” and “desecrate”. But “conflagration” and “deflagration” both mean burning up. A special word that has been coined to pair with construction is “deconstruction”. This term was introduced by French philosopher Jacques Derrida in 1967. It refers to an approach that delves into the meaning of a text and exposes the contradictions and inconsistencies in our reading of it.
From a philosophical treatise to a restaurant menu is a big jump. Chefs have introduced into their menu “deconstructed salad”—in which the items are individually arranged in plates, and the diners construct their own blend of flavours. Instead of a soggy, mushy mixture of items, the diners get the colour, shape and texture they want.
Words carrying the prefix de- are central to business and finance. Deflation and inflation are cardinal factors in the economy of any country. Both disinflation and deflation are used as antonyms of inflation. My dictionary says disinflation is a milder version of deflation. “Devaluation” and “demonetization” both refer to some form of currency reform. “Deregulation” is a topic being discussed widely. The question is whether deregulation, reduction of government control on business, can help the economy by giving free play to competition. Delayering aims at pruning management structures by reducing hierarchical levels in it. I am almost tempted to call it dehierarchization when others are not looking.
VR Narayanaswami is a former professor of English, and 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
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