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The Evolution of Words

hannahgisele's picture

Our conversation in Thursday’s class made me think not only about the evolution of stories and science, but also about the evolution of words. Professor Dalke asked our class whether or not the Great Chain of Being was foundational or not, and then asked the same about Darwin’s (or as we eventually called it, Grobstein’s tree). Because I misunderstood the way we were defining ‘foundational,’ I tried to build a claim about how Grobstein’s tree was in fact ‘foundational,’ because it was founded on scientific stories, just as the Great Chain of Being was founded on people’s faith in God. It was eventually explained that our functional definition of ‘foundational’ needed to be both ‘static’ and ‘purposeful’, and that my reasons for legitimatizing my point were incorrect based on a misunderstanding of the word itself.


This misunderstanding led me to ponder the ways in which words have varying meanings and connotations for different people and furthermore, the ways in which words evolve in meaning over time. While “gay” once meant ‘merry’ or ‘carefree,’ it now refers (as either an adjective or noun) to different components of homosexuality. Just as we believe that things evolve to better fit their environments, so do words. it seems that as society, politics, and taboos shift, so do the words used to describe events.



Anne Dalke's picture

don't miss

the paper by one of your classmates that evolved from this posting, on The Semantics of Foundation.

katlittrell's picture

words, words, words

I agree. I think one of the big barriers to understanding, particularly in many of our class discussions, seems to be our individual conceptions of words. In normal conversation, it is generally assumed that all speakers have the same definition of particular words. From class discussion, we can see that this is simply not true, especially when we begin to discuss complicated concepts such as evolution which have changed over time and remain controversial today.

Words such as "foundational" mean different things to different people in different contexts. I think that in many of our discussions it is important to try to establish definitions of key terms so that all those involved in the conversation start on the same page, rather than having to backtrack over misunderstandings.

I still think that Grobstein's Tree is foundational, as you argued, in that entirely different sense of the word. For many people, it is the story from which all other stories are explained. Darwin's tree was, for Darwin, foundational enough for him to refute multiple other theories of his time, claiming that geology was wrong, not he, and that it was the classification system of species which needed revising, not his theory.

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