The Different Types of Evolution that Words Undergo
Over the last few weeks of class in “The Story of Evolution and the Evolution of Stories,” I’ve come to wonder about origins on many different levels and in varying capacities. Most notably, I’ve been drawn to the idea of etymology as the practice of searching for meaning through the historical/temporal evolution of words. As an English Major and a Classical Studies minor, I’ve always been interested in the roots of words and the way that they eventually form into the structures what we recognize them by now. But this discipline is more concerned with the initial construction of words and does not account as heavily for the changes that words undergo as they survive the evolution of people in different settings, in different time periods, and are spoken by different people of different ages and backgrounds. These numerous variables ensure the constant shifting of meaning, usage, prevalence, and popularity. Just as our genes change when combined with one another, so do the words we use as new trends and necessities crop up in different cultures at different times.
In looking at the etymology and evolution of modern day words, I’ve selected a few that seem to fit into one of two types: there are words that have remained ‘physically’ the same (i.e. same spelling, pronunciation, etc) but have evolved in meaning or relevance (Type 1), and there are concepts that were once given a name that has been replaced by a newer, more current title (Type 2). The first type involves words like “gay,” “green,” and “web” while the latter category involves the shifts in usage from words like “hermaphrodite” to “intersex” or “Mongoloid” to “Downs syndrome.” Type 1 is proof of the power of association, and the ways that words can come to change in meaning based on connotations and symbols. Type 2 supports the idea that nothing is “true” and that everything we believe is a story we’ve concocted to attempt to describe and understand our surroundings. In the case of Type 2 words, sciences’ stories are constantly ‘disproving’ and replacing one another, and the swapping of words for new terms is indicative of a landmark in the formation of a story that better supports a theory or a trend of evidence (and in these cases, the understanding of these genetic variations in people).
In defining my terms for this paper, I’m going to employ one of the categories mentioned above: Type 2. While most people say “survival of the fittest” to describe one of the central concepts of natural selection, I’m looking to create an evolving shift and to employ the term “survival of the best fitted” to describe the same concept (I originally utilized this term in another essay, “Evolution vs. Creationism in Education”). As I mentioned in this earlier essay, “the concept of a species being the ‘fittest’ connotes a sense of superiority over other species when in fact the term is only meant to insinuate that the species’ traits compliment its environment, or vice versa. Such an overlap is sometimes dependent on genetic shifts, and sometimes caused by environmental changes that help or hinder certain members of a given species.” Just as words shift in meaning and become more and less relevant during different time periods, we can see the way that words have a sort of ‘fitness’ as well. They, too, can become extinct (e.g. “acrasial” or “cloakatively”), or can reemerge after periods of disuse. Likewise, they can change in meaning in order to better ‘fit’ situations and environments. These changes can be tracked, just as the progressions of genes can. Therefore, in swapping “survival of the fittest” for “survival of the best fitted,” I’m attempting to create a story that better serves the concept I’m working to define.
In looking at Type 1 words, we can see how they originated, and the path they’ve taken to adapt to cultural norms and needs, just as we can track our Mitochondrial Eve to find our equivalent ‘etymology’. If someone talks about ‘being green,’ it is widely understood that they aren’t referring to the color, but to the important trend of being ecologically friendly. Obviously, ‘being green’ is a term that has evolved from the color itself as people work to keep our earth green and healthy, but it has taken on a new meaning as it has evolved to fit our culture. Similarly, when people mention “the web,” it is unlikely that others would think of some kind of physical web, but rather, the World Wide Web. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, it is defined as “a widely used multimedia information system on the Internet, whereby documents stored at numerous locations worldwide are cross-referenced using hypertext links, which allow users to search for and access information by moving from one document to another.” The evolution of this term is also apparent: a web is considered to be an intricate, interwoven structure, and the WWW is the virtual representation of such a concept.
A third example of words that have physically remained the same but have evolved (or devolved) over time in meaning are words like “gay,” “dyke,” and “faggot.” Each one originally meant something neutral or referred to an inanimate object (i.e. gay, meaning ‘merry’ or ‘cheerful’, dyke meaning a sort of levee, and faggot meaning ‘a bundle of sticks’), but they have all taken on heavily charged connotations of immorality and are often considered to be derogatory labels. While “gay” means “homosexual,” it has recently taken on an alternate use: as an adjective to describe undesirable or irreverent concepts (e.g. stating, “that shirt is so gay” rather than describing it as ugly or stupid). In equating certain sexual orientations with depravity or as being undesirable, we can once again see how words shift in meaning based on cultural norms, expectations, biases, and severe prejudices.
In this same vein, we can see how Type 2 words originated out of a lack of understanding, and were maintained through ignorance and cultural insensitivity. Before science cultivated stories to account for the biological concept of an intersex person, the term “hermaphrodite” was widely used. The scientific ‘story’ used in coining this term is that a hermaphrodite is both wholly male and female, which we have learned is a physiological impossibility. As scientists came to new conclusions and were able to better understand the genetic reasoning behind such cases, the term was replaced with ‘intersex,’ which described the condition much more accurately. Likewise, before John Langdon Down described the syndrome in 1866, those inflicted with Down syndrome were referred to as “Mongoloids” due to their enhanced epicanthic folds (a trait associated with Mongolian individuals) as well as other defining features. As scientific stories improved, there was a need for appropriate terminology, at which point “Mongoloid” was retired. This evolution of terms mirrors the evolution of the stories used to describe each genetic variation.
In tracking the evolution of words and their meanings, we can draw the parallel between genetic variation and fitness, and the survival and prominence of words. Individuals and animals whose genes culminate in traits that compliment their surroundings have a greater chance of reproducing and forming a direct line of contact into the future. Likewise, words that evolve over time to fit cultural needs remain necessary and widely used. While these verbal shifts are more purposeful than genetic evolutionary changes, they both revolve around this concept of fitness in ones environment.
As we look to the future, we can note trends and anticipate the ways that our society seems to be reaching for definitions of words that are more provocative, taboo, and disquieting. In taking words that initially lack distinguishing connotations, and swiveling their usage to ensure that their primary meaning is a provocative one, we are further feeding into a society in which shock value is appreciated, and where being politically correct is less enforced than it should be. So as our society moves in different directions politically, religiously, economically, racially, sexually, and monetarily, we can watch as the words used hold different degrees of importance, and take on new meanings for their speakers. So, just as we believe that beings evolve to better fit their environments, so do the words we use in every day life. It seems that as society, politics, and taboos shift, so do the words used to describe events. In looking at the etymologies and evolution of words, we can’t help but wonder about the inherent foundational standpoint upon which we speak and wield out words. And though we can’t control our own genetic shifts and variations, we posses the agency to bring about the evolution of the way we speak, the way we hear, and the way we will affect the generations to come.