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The director of the electronics retailer Dixons was very firm with the Guardian last weekend, saying that difficulties in contacting its customer services had been because “we are currently migrating this department to the new centre in Sheffield”. By one of those coincidences, a few days earlier the man in charge of our Web system had told me that if we needed a particular application, he would migrate our files to another server that ran it.

The verb is common in the computer business in this sense: “to change or cause to change from using one system to another” or “to transfer programs or hardware from one system to another” and it seems to have originated there. It sounds odd to most of us is because we are unused to hearing the verb migrate associated with a direct object — things may migrate to another place, but traditionally we don’t migrate things.

Migrate can probably be traced back to an Indo-European root that meant change or exchange. Through Latin this has also given us mutate (created in the nineteenth century from the noun mutation), mutual, municipal, mad and mean (in the sense of being unworthy or ignoble). The direct Latin source for migrate was the verb migrare, which had the general sense of moving from one place to another.

It was borrowed into English as the noun migration with the same meaning; by the middle of the eighteenth century the verb had appeared and had taken on the specific idea of animals that moved to follow the seasons; slightly later, it began to refer to a movement of peoples from one place to settle in another.

These senses have become the most common ones, so that its recent adoption as an elevated synonym for move strikes many older people as odd or pretentious. But it’s really no more than a return to its roots.

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Page created 05 Aug 2000