Serendip is an independent site partnering with faculty at multiple colleges and universities around the world. Happy exploring!

Zounds, Skyhooks, and Bootyliscious: The Evolution of Words

kgould's picture
Normal 0 false false false MicrosoftInternetExplorer4

Zounds, Skyhooks, and Bootyliscious: The Evolution of Words


Throughout the first half of the semester, I actively wrestled with the words we picked to discuss and describe evolution. Foundationalism, (or the “F-Word” for Dalke’s section), and non-Foundationalism, Skyhooks and Cranes; I understood their application in class for the most part, but struggled to understand how they could be used outside of Evolution of Stories. Any attempt to discuss the course, diction and all, would leave my friends and family befuddled and confused. Moreover, the words seemed to change their meaning as I struggled to pin them down. Skyhooks were grounded in a story, with a beginning and an end… or were they suspended in belief? And where did that leave Cranes, building their way up… with no Foundation? Skyhooks were “bad,” Dennett thought they should be stomped and buried, but they seemed necessary for the evolution of human culture. Cranes had no designer… but a construction crane was designed and used in the design of foundations!

            The words were evolving—gaining new meaning as we moved our way through the semester. And I wondered, were the same forces that acted on living organisms (namely natural selection) acting on the words we’ve used as a culture over the course of history?

            If we look into Dennett’s concept of memes, which are transferred like genes over time, it would be reasonable to assume that word use is analogous to the driving forces of natural selection. Words that are used more will continue to be used, and words that fall out of vogue and are not used anymore will be lost, becoming extinct. (“Zounds,” anyone?) Heavily used words evolve more slowly (or not at all). “I” and “we” are pretty useful as they are, why change them? Researchers at Reading University claim that the words “I,” “we,” “two,” and “three” are among the oldest words in the English language, dating back tens of thousands of years (1). And why not? They’re used constantly in everyday language; I’m sure one would find it very hard to convey themselves without using the aforementioned words (or any numbers at all, for that matter). The same Reading University researchers claim that they can predict words close to extinction, including “guts,” “stick,” and “bad.” (Now, I can’t remember the last time I heard someone say “guts,” but “stick” and “bad” are frequently used; I’m not sure how much time these researchers spend away from their computer programs).

            And new words are added to the English lexicon all of the time. “Bootyliscious” is a popular one, with words like “supersize” (big surprise) and “hoody” (young person who wears a hooded sweatshirt, often a deviant) also recorded in the Oxford English Dictionary as of 2006. Experts suggest that, like clothes, words are made, used, and fade from everyday use over the course of a decade or so. (“Groovy” and “neat” are some examples, as well as bellbottoms and hoopskirts) (2). I know that my use of “funky” almost directly contradicts the “funky” of my parents; my “funky” suggests something eclectic or bohemian. My parents used “funky” to denote something foul or disgusting. (There has been some confusion in our household on that one).

            Words evolve, language evolves, and while some literary elitists are screaming Doomsday with the advent of text messaging and l33t sp34k, it would be inappropriate to suggest that language is “devolving.” Like natural selection, the force that drives the evolution of words is hardly driving for perfection. More than anything, our vocabulary twists and changes to suit the revolutions in our society, namely the booming technological developments that have erupted with the advent of the Internet.

            And in this sense, words are very much like genes. A driving, selective force (culture, usage, popularity) selects the best words and weeds out the bad, and the tried and true “I,” “we,” and “two” persevere to allow English speakers to articulate themselves concisely. Now, Foundationalism refers to those who do not question their beliefs (while non-Foundationalism refers to those who do). Skyhooks are concepts and ideas suspended in another world, be it imagination or an alter-reality. Cranes are founded in reality, solid like the new foundation of Goodhart.

            So while some of us may not like the words “Foundationalism” and “Skyhook,” you can rest easy with the knowledge that they’ll change (like our genes), or die off like the sad Blue-Footed Booby, never to be uttered again.


(A moment of silence for the 1,600 hyphens that died in the 2007 edition of the Shorter Oxford Dictionary, eradiacted from words like “chick-pea” and “bumble-bee”; researchers cite email and chatspeak as the main predators of this dwindling piece of punctuation. Save the hyphens! Hyphenate today!)




  2. 2.


Paul Grobstein's picture

words and the weather ...

Yep, words do indeed evolve, including words used in the course.  And the process, in both cases, isn't "driving for perfection."  So, what's it doing?  In the world at large?  in our course?  You don't like the weather?  Wait around, it will change.  Is that it?