From the “Feedback” column of the NewScientist of January 22:
At the end of last year, Alastair Beaven asked if readers had examples of people using words in a novel sense without knowing their original meaning – and he wondered if this phenomenon has a name (25 December). He gave the example of an interpreter in Afghanistan who knew about viruses in computers, but not about biological viruses.
Other readers supplied examples of several other types: people who knew of “Big Brother” only through the reality tv show, not from George Orwell; someone who noted the moment when for her “Homer” “stopped being a Greek poet [she means stopped referring only to a Greek poet] and took on the meaning [she means the additional meaning, possibly the primary meaning] of a cartoon character”; someone who asked how it is possible to “dial” a number on a cellphone; a child who identified mobile ‘cellphone’ and mobile ‘hanging decoration’ (along these lines, a huge number of children, and some adults, identify gas ‘gasoline, petrol’ and gas ‘natural gas’, which is primarily methane).
These various examples hang together only loosely, some having to do with common nouns, some with proper names, some with actual ignorance of earlier meanings or referents, some with semantic split (with earlier uses maintained), some with metaphorical extensions into new domains (with, in some cases, loss of knowledge about the earlier domains), some with the identification of earlier distinct items because of phonological identity or similarity.
Several names were suggested: vironym for an instance, uragnosia (ur ‘original’ + agnosia ‘ignorance’) for the phenomenon, meionym for a new use of a word that has “split off” from the original meaning (cf. meiosis).
Now, although all the contributors framed things in terms of “original” vs. “novel” or “new” uses, historical originality is not of course at issue, but only historical precedence, and then only in the contributors’ personal experience. (People not infrequently get the actual historical sequence backwards; in many cases they have no idea about this sequence; and hardly anyone without highly specialized knowledge can have any idea of the uses of words when the words entered the language — nor should they.)
Uragnosia is in fact the ground state of human nature.
What people are remarking on when they talk about ignorance of the “original” meanings is just that they think others should know about earlier meanings. It’s not just that others are ignorant — we are all, deeply, and necessarily — ignorant (‘not knowing’) about such things — but that their these people are in some way culpably ignorant, not just literally ignorant (in the, twist of the knife, original sense of ignorant), but stupid, unable to learn, about things they should know.
The first question in each such case is whether the knowledge would be a benefit. Would it be helpful to someone to know that earlier phones had dials, and that that’s why people talk about “dialling” on cellphones? Probably not, though the fact is of cultural interest, a fascinating fact. Would it be helpful to someone to know that there are biological viruses as well as computer viruses, who cares which term came first? Almost surely: biological viruses are important in the modern world. (In this case, the “original” sense is not nearly so important as a salient alternative sense that it would be useful to know about.)