English Word Series: Life

What is the meaning of ‘life’? The answer to this question is almost five thousand years old and leads us to the Proto-Indo-European word ‘*lip’ meaning, ‘to remain, persevere, and continue’. When this word was adopted into the English language as ‘lf’ about 1500 years ago, it stayed true to its original meaning but closely resembled its Germanic predecessors meaning of ‘body’.

Since Old English, ‘life’ has meant, ‘the condition, quality, or fact of being a living organism’. This includes the capacity for growth and development characterized by continued functional activity. It is natural then that from its very beginnings ‘life’ has been used as the opposite meaning of ‘death’ (or the cessation of animate existence). ‘Life’ also meant to describe the existence of an individual in respects of its duration, ‘the period from birth to death, from birth to a particular time, or from a particular time to death’. It becomes clearly evident that the meaning of ‘life’ has not changed in over 1500 years of usage.

There were however added meanings that were attached to ‘life’ during the Middle English period. ‘Life’ began to mean not only the living organism itself but the cause or source of living, ‘the animating principle which keeps a thing alive’. The natural extension to this meaning was that people began to believe that ‘life’ was a possession which was deprived by death- a meaning that can be constantly witnessed in modern media, ‘political violence claims an average of almost nine lives a day’, for example.

From the mid 16th century ‘life’ was used to describe the chance to live after a narrowly escaped death- this originated from the myth of cats having ‘nine lives’. From the late 16th century ‘life’ began to mean the vitality embodied in an individual person who was very energetic and animated, ‘there was no lustre in her eye, no life in her step’(late 18th century). From this later meaning the sport of cricket adopted the word ‘life’ to describe the ‘quality in the pitch which causes the ball to rise abruptly or unevenly after pitching’. From the early 18th century ‘life’ included the activity and presence of living things as well, ‘it was only the dinosaurs that disappeared, not the whole of animal life’ (mid 19th century).

In the early 19th century ‘life’ was adopted by various games to specify, ‘the number of successive chances each player had before being put out’- a concept that was adopted by video game makers in the late 20th century. By mid 19th century the term ‘lifer’ or ‘life sentence’ was used for a person who was imprisoned for the rest of his existence.