The way words filter through languages and culture and history is fascinating. Sometimes they gain nuance as they evolve, and sometimes they lose it.

Tonight’s realization, prompting this little jot, is that knapsack, rucksack, and haversack – which most English speakers would consider synonyms for “backpack” – are all words from German roots, with distinct meanings. Most American English speakers I know would probably give you a funny look, or even a snort, if you started talking about taking your haversack with you. But I assume that the words are probably in most native English speakers’ passive vocabulary, and we all recognize and understand many more words than we actively use.

Tangent: I remember “havre” means “harbor.” Did habersack become havresack simply through imprecise pronunciation? Or was there a period of time when horses frequently arrived in a French harbor with their feedbags? And did some benighted 18th century bilingual word-nerd ever wonder why the thing was called a “harbor bag”? Is it one of the long-standing variables of human behavior, that some percentage of the population will think way too much about words?

Words and perception are tangled up together; generally, you have to have words that express nuance in order for the nuance to be perceived. This is well-documented in psychology and linguistics research. (Some studies have shown that language differences actually change perception itself!) So when we lose distinctions between words, we lose a way of shaping our experience in the world. Consider:

  • Knapsack: early 17th cent.: from Middle Low German, from Dutch knapzack, probably from German knappen ‘to bite’ + zak ‘sack.’
  • Rucksack: mid 19th cent.: from German, from rucken (dialect variant of Rücken ‘back’) + Sack ‘bag, sack.’
  • Haversack: mid 18th cent.: from French havresac, from obsolete German Habersack, denoting a bag used by soldiers to carry oats as horse feed, from dialect Haber ‘oats’ + Sack ‘sack, bag.’

There was a time when these differences mattered enough to name them. Did an 18th century German ever come across a hiker with a knapsack – a perfectly respectable, lunch-appropriate bag – and tease him about his haversack, implying that his lunch actually should or would feed a horse?

(And “haver” also has the Scottish usage of “to talk nonsense.” The dictionary says “early 18th cent: of unknown origin.” Hm. I could see a connection. “When Angus talks like that, it might as well be a horse munching oats.” Or perhaps, “When Angus talks like that, he makes about as much sense as the French calling a backpack a ‘harbor bag.’”)

This collapsing of nuances happens all the time. I like that language evolves, and I like that English is flexible and tolerant. I confess, though, that I sometimes feel that our culture now has general disdain for subtlety, and I think that is to our detriment. Momentarily was a very good word to describe a temporary state: She was momentarily disoriented. Now it is used by many transportation systems to mean in a moment: “This train will be leaving momentarily.”

I also have a thing about utilize and use. Although very few people bother with the distinction, utilize in not just a polysyllabic synonym for use. To me, the difference explained by T.A.R. Cheney in his 1983 book “Getting the Words Right” is meaningful. In current dictionaries, utilize has preserved its extra sense of “put to use.” What seems to have evaporated is the rest of the thought: put to use in a practical manner for which it wasn’t intended.” Paraphrasing Cheney, if you can’t find a screwdriver to use to loosen the screw, you can utilize a dime.

The conflation of words over time reveals a lot about a culture. The particular distinctions of rucksack, backpack, and haversack don’t mean that much in present-day English. If the distinctions being described no longer have meaning for the general population, the words slip away. For a while the dictionary will say, “Now obsolete,” and then eventually, the memory of that word or meaning is gone.