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Lex maniac

Investigating changes in American English vocabulary over the last 40 years

avatar

(1990’s | computerese | “totem,” “alter ego”)

Occasionally a word will just flip around. For thousands of years, “avatar” meant corporeal embodiment of an abstraction, often a god (the word comes from Sanskrit and is mainly associated with the Hindu god Vishnu). What does it mean now? An incorporeal representation of a flesh-and-blood person. Now your avatar is a tiny image file that stands for you in the on-line universe –- on Facebook, in a role-playing video game, or on a blogger’s profile. It could be a portrait but usually isn’t, and there are dozens of sites that will give you some raw material and a little coaching to help you make your own. Another word for it is “icon,” which is a little different but not that far off. “Avatar” was definitely available in its present form by 2000, though perhaps not all that widespread in the days before everybody needed one to keep up a virtual social life. Now it is all over everywhere.

Is it odd that both terms have a distinctly religious cast? By the time you’ve settled on which South Park character you want to represent you on your social media pages, the sense of majesty and mystery that religion must command has pretty well worn away. Both “avatar” and “icon” have had non-religious uses for at least a century now, or at least “avatar” has, but there’s still a distinct whiff of it. You might also argue that technology, the most up-to-date religion we have going, has simply appropriated sacred vocabulary and repurposed it.

The question leads to a favorite pastime of mine: constructing narratives of cultural decline. “Avatar” once had a mystical tone, associated either with the gods themselves or people who live out philosophically pure distillations of noble principles. Now it’s a few pixels thrown together that allows you to play video games. A decided downward drift, and all in my lifetime! A quick scan of search results does confirm that Google, for one, doesn’t think old-fashioned religious uses of the term count for much — though, of course, the results are skewed by the 2009 blockbuster film. I didn’t see it, but from what I gather the eponymous characters in the film had at least a touch of the guru or sage about them. (I remember the movie as being about blue characters who weren’t Smurfs, but that just shows you how primitive my cinematic consciousness is.)

On-line avatars remind me of choosing your token at the beginning of a Monopoly game (we usually called it simply a “piece,” but if I remember correctly, the rules used the word “token”). The dog, the shoe, the little car, etc. (I liked the wheelbarrow myself.) Most people had a preference, whether they considered it lucky or somehow apt. True, you couldn’t cobble your own avatar together in Monopoly; you had to take what Parker Brothers gave you. But those were the boring old days, my children. Image files are not my strong suit, but I came up with a few related user names, free to a good home. Want to be an actress? Ava Tardner. Fond of the Middle Ages? Avatar and Heloise. For fans of ancient video games, Avatari. For a historical touch, how about Amelia Earhart, avatrix? That’ll light up the chat boards.

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